My first job in journalism was with the Glasgow Herald, which then had a bar built in to the complex. I was taken under the wing of the legendary James Freeman, who taught me the ways of the jungle. ‘You see that journalists always drink in groups of three?’ he told me in the bar one lunchtime. ‘That’s so, when one goes to the toilet, the other two can slag him off.’ And it’s true: my profession is notoriously bitchy. I was reminded of this when switching on the BBC news to find, yet again, that the transgressions of the Daily Mail and its spat with Ed Miliband is deemed the most important story of the day. I look at this in my Daily Telegraph column today.
The intro to Rod Liddle’s column in the magazine this week will strike a chord with many commentators on Fleet St.
Ring, ring goes the telephone every minute God sends. Sometimes I pick it up and say hello, sometimes I don’t. I know who is calling, anyway. It is one or another media representative from the bien-pensant absolutist liberal left, and they are all in a dither about a man called Ralph Miliband, of whom they had probably never heard until a few hours ago, and whom they have most certainly not read. Their sense of excitement, these youngish callers from a multiplicity of BBC news stations and, of course, Channel 4 News, is palpable; it fizzes and crackles down the line, their outrage and their delight at possibly finding someone who might add to their outrage, perhaps cube their outrage. Unless it’s just the jackdaws hacking away at the telephone lines again. It could be that.
As for me, I’ve now had about 18 phone calls, 16 of them from the BBC, asking me to comment on this nonsense. The last call came a couple of hours ago, from BBC London. Would I like to discuss with Vanessa Feltz “whether the Daily Mail has gone too far?” Em, no thanks. In the unlikely event that anyone does care what I think about this, I concur with Charles Moore’s verdict in the new Spectator.
Although it is true that a significant minority on the left was actually treacherous in its support for the Soviet Union, even more harm was done by honest, decent patriots, such as Ralph Miliband, who thought that state socialism was the answer to our woes.
It is ridiculous to say Ralph Miliband hated his country. You may think the Mail profile was distasteful and ridiculous, but so are a lot of pieces in newspapers. That’s what free press looks like: raucous, provocative, occasionally tasteless and offensive. As Alex Massie says: thank God for that. This really isn’t a big deal. Except it is now, apparently, when a politician protests and is now declaring he wants the Daily Mail to look into its ‘culture and practices.’ Suddenly, it is treated as a national emergency.
But look at the graphic on the right: the most-read stories on the BBC website. No one gives a monkey’s about Ed Miliband’s spat with the Daily Mail. But the BBC has nonetheless decided to make this the lead story on its website and on its bulletins. Newspapers just don’t have this luxury: if you splash on a corporate obsession that readers don’t care about they’ll punish you by not buying the paper. Only The Times mentions this Miliband story on its cover today.
Back to the Glasgow Herald journalists in the bar, and the bitching. We do find each other very interesting, us hacks. Now and again, tribes go to war. We like to attack each other, we love to retaliate – but normally keep it out of the news pages, knowing that we can bore readers rigid in the process. The BBC, it seems, has no such qualms.
I love the BBC, admire the outstanding quality of its journalism and would happily pay several hundred pounds for a licence fee. But I take as granted that it has (like most newspapers) an institutional bias. Its general worldview involves powerful newspapers dictated by rich men with grudges – as contrasted with the BBC which rises above all this with taxpayer-funded Reithian impartiality. So when stories come up that put newspapers in a bad light, and seems to confirm this worldview, the BBC gets greatly excited. It’s as if they believe they are boldly standing up to power. Yet graph below (from an Ofcom report) shows where the power actually lies.
So the BBC is big, and getting bigger. And as for those demon barons of Fleet St…
Since the Leveson Inquiry started almost two years ago, newspaper circulation has plunged by 17 per cent. Fleet St has never been weaker, which is why the threat of regulation looms so large now. As Miliband knows. If you accept his premise that the Daily Mail’s ’culture and practices’ are a matter of national importance, deserving of the lead news bulletins, it follows something should be done about these wicked newspapers. Perhaps implement Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the ‘culture and practices’ of the newspaper industry, which would allow politicians to define the parameters under which the press must operate. What a power flip that would be! Right now, the British press observes HL Menken’s dictum: journalist is to politician as dog is to lampost. Leveson would let the lampposts set the rules.
Miliband is talking like he already is in charge – or, at the very least, the newspapers are a problem a Labour government would like to solve. In interview with LabourList today, he closes by saying:
‘If we’re going to have those massive debates about the cost of living, we need to have proper standards of decency in our press.’
Who defines ‘proper’? Politicians like Miliband, it seems. The idea makes the buttocks clench.
As Miliband knows, Leveson is (grudgingly) giving evidence to a parliamentary committee next week and may make this point. Tory Cabinet members believe Miliband may be able to put Leveson’s recommendations law by amending a Bill – perhaps the Lobbying Bill – with Lib Dem support. People haven’t cared about this so far. But the impending trial of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks will bring back lots of publicity. A great time for the enemies of the free press to strike.
Next Wednesday, a medieval group known as the Privy Council will meet to consider the industry’s proposal to save its independence. The very situation is an insult to democracy but, anyway, as Miliband knows, the fuss he has created does not bode well for press freedom surviving. As the PM says, there is still a majority in parliament to implement the internationally-condemned Leveson Report. Which The Spectator would, of course, ignore. It would be a dark day for British liberty, but one that may be now approaching.Tags: BBC, Daily Mail, Ed Miliband