The press, the BBC and internet bullying
Published in: Daily Mail
Last Friday, more than 40 Tory MPs and peers published a letter in the Guardian calling for the introduction of state regulation of the Press.
They were helping inflame the already boiling controversy over the report into press ethics by Lord Justice Leveson — which not only has not yet been published, but may even not yet have been finalised.
In their letter — in its third paragraph, no less — the politicians wrote that statutory regulation of the BBC and ITV had not compromised the independence of these media institutions and so should cause no concern.
Their enthusiasm for state regulation was somewhat unfortunately timed. For the very next day, the BBC went into meltdown over an egregious failure of journalism that unleashed the internet’s hounds of hell against Lord McAlpine, the hapless individual whom Newsnight’s wholly unreliable source had falsely accused of being a paedophile.
The impulse behind this item was undoubtedly a desire to make amends for the previous Newsnight debacle, in which its editor had canned a report that would have finally lifted the lid on the blind eye the BBC had for decades turned to the sexual assaults by Jimmy Savile on under-age girls, even in its very own dressing rooms.
All this occurred despite the fact that the BBC is partially regulated by Ofcom which, among other things, monitors it for harm, offence, fairness and privacy.
This gross institutional failure took place under Ofcom’s oversight because its causes lie deep inside the dysfunctional, managerially top-heavy culture of the BBC itself.
The key point about the Newsnight care-home debacle was that the anonymised item was apparently referred upwards through senior management figures and BBC lawyers — none of whom apparently asked the basic questions that would have exposed the falsehood.
The BBC’s internal regulatory structures are simultaneously fiendishly complex and spectacularly useless. The root cause of that is surely the licence fee, which subsidises complacency, arrogance and introverted group-think and means the BBC is never forced to be truly accountable to the only people who matter — the general public.
Ofcom is utterly incapable of correcting these deficiencies, and it has hardly had any greater success in maintaining standards among commercial broadcasters. It doesn’t prevent Channel Five from regularly broadcasting smut, for example.
Nor did it prevent the ITV Good Morning presenter Phillip Schofield from sloppily waving at a startled Prime Minister a list of alleged paedophiles culled from a few minutes’ trawl of the internet, as if such material could ever be thought reliable or true.
And let’s not forget that it was an unregulated newspaper — The Guardian — which through its own investigations revealed that Lord McAlpine had been falsely accused as a result of the activities of a regulated broadcaster.
Any further external regulation will not stop the rot at the BBC, which has simply lost its way.
The Newsnight mess is said to represent a dagger at the heart of the Corporation, which depends entirely on absolute trust in its journalistic brand in order to justify its position as a publicly funded broadcaster.
But, in fact, BBC journalism has long betrayed that trust by its incorrigible, institutional Left-wing bias.
There have long been entirely justified complaints that it presents a vast range of topics such as America, the Middle East, big business, Europe, environmentalism, conservatism, immigration and many more through a Left-wing prism.
BBC Leftism is nothing less than a hermetically sealed thought system, with most of the Corporation’s journalists and executives simply incapable of any insight into their condition.
As for Newsnight itself, this has long been a failing programme given to putting across a risibly cartoonish Left-wing view of the world. You can just sense the excitement they must have felt at the chance to expose a ‘top Tory’ as a paedophile.
Yet none of these worrying issues has been covered by the Leveson Inquiry, whose terms of reference cover only the culture, practices and ethics of the Press.
The inquiry was set up by a panicky David Cameron in the wake of the News International phone-hacking scandal.
The proper inquiry for those suspected crimes was surely the province of the police. Yet the Prime Minister instead effectively put the Press on trial — while failing to address the abuse of journalism at the infinitely more influential BBC.
More important still was the failure to inquire into abuses on Twitter and the web. Yet this is where the most vicious attacks are taking place against innocent individuals.
It was on Twitter and the web, after all, where Lord McAlpine was so unjustly smeared. And the Savile scandal similarly unleashed a torrent of names of suspected paedophiles, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.
The point about the Press — and, of course, this is where Newsnight so spectacularly failed — is that it carefully sifts such claims before publishing them. Twitter publishes them with no such checks — and such smears and libels then instantly reach a vast global audience.
Worse still, Twitter and the web have become weapons of mass harassment and intimidation, with hundreds of thousands of Tweets or readers’ comments hurling vile abuse or even threats — mostly with complete impunity.
Of course, any regulation of the internet conjures up the prospect of a sinister attack on free speech. But there can be no justification for mass bullying and intimidation.
By contrast to this absence of regulation on the net, the Press is, in fact, already regulated twice over — first, by self-regulation, and second by commercial pressure of the kind that shut down the News of The World in the phone-hacking scandal.
There is now a danger of ending up with the worst of all possible worlds.
The most hotly tipped successor to George Entwistle as BBC director-general is Ed Richards, the head of Ofcom.
Mr Richards is not only a former Labour adviser but was criticised earlier this year by the Public Accounts Committee, which accused him of treating taxpayers with ‘disdain’ over Ofcom’s lavish spending of public money.
What the BBC needs above all is to return to the core journalistic principles of truth, fairness and objectivity — which certainly won’t be achieved if the new D-G is a managerialist New Labour stooge.
As for Sir Brian Leveson’s inquiry, this has largely ignored the most unconscionable elements of the current media age, while interested parties have pursued a vendetta against the Press.
It is troubling that Sir David Bell, a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which fronted the disgraceful Newsnight care home inquiry and whose editor’s tweet on the morning of transmission set the Twitter pack on to Lord McAlpine, serves as an assessor on the Leveson inquiry.
In another apparent conflict of interest, Sir David’s Media Standards Trust also spawned the Hacked Off campaign, which advocates a state role in press regulation.
The danger now is that we will end up on the one hand with press regulation that strangles attempts to hold the powerful to account, while on the other nothing is done to prevent innocent people from being smeared as paedophiles on Twitter and the web.
And doubtless for the BBC, after all the fuss has died down, it will be business as usual.