The Daily Mail last week risked alienating its millions of women readers (whom I assume from its normal priorities to be interested only in health, beauty and plastic surgery) by running pages of indigestible stuff about a conspiracy to curb the freedoms of the British press. It was perhaps a selfless initiative in the public interest, disclosing things that the Mail felt its readers ought to know even if they probably didn’t give a fig about them.
The burden of its message was that a network of ‘elitist liberals’ from the Blair era had been exerting undue influence on the Leveson inquiry to get it to recommend statutory regulation of the British press. It identified its chief villain as Sir David Bell, a Leveson ‘assessor’, a former chairman of the Financial Times and a man with a stake in a number of strange organisations united by a common urge to impose some sort of ethical discipline on the British press.
They have names like Common Purpose, which trains high-flying people in ‘networking’ and ‘leadership’; the Media Standards Trust, ‘which aims to foster high standards in news media on behalf of the public’; Hacked Off, a group of celebrities begging for protection from the glare of the tabloids; and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which seeks to educate the media and the public in ‘the value of honest reporting’. Well, you can’t be on as many trusts and committees as Sir David Bell without sometimes having a tangential involvement with cock-ups of one kind or another. And we shouldn’t hold it against him that the Millennium Bridge across the Thames, of which he was chairman, should have wobbled; or that the Orwell Prize for political journalism, of which he was also chairman, should have been awarded in 2008 to Johann Hari of the Independent who turned out to be dishonest and a plagiarist.
But what of the BIJ of which Sir David is a trustee? This is the outfit that is supposed to show us all how journalism should be done, and to set an example of excellence and diligence to the shoddy and corrupt papers of Fleet Street. In its self-regarding evidence to the Leveson inquiry, it said it aimed to be ‘a masterclass, a gold standard for evidence-based journalism’, to be ‘a hands-on training ground for journalism students’, and to produce reporting that would be ‘as close to incontrovertible as possible’. Well, this is the organisation that ‘exposed’ Lord McAlpine as a paedophile and in doing so brought disgrace upon one of the BBC’s most admired news programmes, Newsnight, and provoked a blizzard of libel actions against all and sundry. It pleaded at Leveson for charitable status and legal protection to enable it to afford its noble work, but then went on to show a disregard for routine checking procedures that would shame even the lowliest tabloid hack.
The first lesson to emerge from the McAlpine affair is that strict regulation of the press and commitment to the highest standards of journalism are no protection against catastrophes of this kind. The reliance on one source, Steve Messham, to identify Lord McAlpine as his abuser, and then not even to show Messham a photograph of the accused man, is quite incredible. You don’t have to go to journalism school, or to aspire to ‘a gold standard for evidence-based journalism’, to realise that it is grotesquely irresponsible to make this vile accusation against anyone on such a flimsy basis. You don’t even have to be a journalist. To be a normal human being would be enough. Yet the BIJ and Newsnight itself, with its state regulation and elaborate bureaucratic systems of upward reference, failed the most elementary test of good journalism.
And I think back to the case of Jayson Blair, a young black reporter on the New York Times who in 2003 was found to have routinely lied and plagiarised in his news stories, and I marvel at how he got away with it on a newspaper obsessed with the highest journalistic standards, and with an editorial staff of 1,200 there to enforce them. The Times admitted no fault by anyone but the pushy, scheming young reporter who had let everyone down and dishonoured the paper. It was implicit in its defence that deliberate, systematic deceit by a reporter is almost impossible to detect. But if it had happened on the Sun or News of the World, I bet it would have been detected. The mere fact that for six months Blair submitted no expenses claims, although pretending to file reports from 20 American cities during that time, would have been quite enough to arouse the deepest suspicions in Fleet Street.
When I was young, journalism schools barely existed, and I never knew anyone who went to one. But we were nevertheless terrified of getting things wrong because our news editors would get so angry with us if we did. There was nothing pious or sanctimonious about Fleet Street, but it was simply accepted there that whatever stuff it printed, however trivial or tasteless or offensive, had at least to be true. Unless journalists themselves believe this, and work with editors who insist upon it, I don’t see what anyone can do.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012