Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Knots and nots

When I added my signature to a short letter to The Times a while back, it was to make one very narrow, simple but important point in the post-Leveson debate.
A debate that’s been absurdly protracted by the newspaper industry’s passive-aggressive foot-dragging. Promising us, the public, something Leveson-compliant while, somehow, never quite producing it.
Simple
That very narrow, simple but important point was this: that there’s nothing in even the strictest form of media regulation, the regulation of broadcasting, that’s “inevitably anathema to free speech”.
Nothing in that strictest of regulatory regimes that “automatically places us under the thumb of politicians”.
Simple enough, huh?
The point was to introduce a bit of reality to counter this particular diversion. Not to argue that broadcasting-style regulation should be extended to the press. Nor to put Ofcom in charge of our newspapers. No-one sane wants either.
Disappointment
But that didn't stop some getting tangled in knots over it - and that was disappointing.
Steve Hewlett in his interview with Peter Kosminsky on The Media Show, for example. Or his piece in The Guardian – I tweeted, probably a tad harshly, that it was a “stonking exercise in missing the point”.
Peter Preston took a different tack in the Observer though he arrived at a similarly disappointing, nodular destination.
He asked me whether I remembered the “catastrophe of Andrew Gilligan, David Kelly and the Hutton report” and the “Downing Street waves that lapped around (me)”. And whether Greg Dyke – who also signed the Times letter – “remembers the vote by the BBC governors – chaired then by a former chief whip – that swept him out of office?”
Book plug
Simple answer. Yes – and you can read all about both in my book Stumbling Over Truth.
But Peter's message was clear. Broadcasters are in "chains"; our journalism isn't somehow as "free"or, by implication, as 'good' as that of the press. Less good at holding power to account, calling its deceptions and standing up to its pressure.
Proof, he goes on, is that when we rattle our chains, the seen and unseen hands of power clamp us tight again and show who's boss.
It’s fantasy, of course. And, as we said in the letter, frankly insulting.
Waves
But as a pedant, I'm kinda obliged to point out he's not got the before, during and after of the dossier row quite right. The facts don't serve his argument in the way he thinks.
Those Downing Street waves (and before that, Millbank ripples) didn't lap around me only during the dossier business. They threatened daily to break over me and my programmes for a decade before Gilligan shambled on air on that May morning in 2003.
Why? Because The World at One - the programme I was editing most of that time - made a point of shining a light day in, day out on New Labour's sleights of hand intended to “create the truth”.
It meant endless bloody rows with Downing Street - and, naturally, they tried to put the squeeze on. But there was never a sniff of “back off” from my bosses. Nor so much as a raised eyebrow from our “regulators”, the BBC Governors in those days.
All the suits took an interest in was whether our stories were well-founded, well-sourced and accurate. They were, we got on with it.
Dossiers and defenestration
The 2003/4 dossier affair was no different - except for one thing.
Gilligan's story was well-founded and well-sourced ... but in one broadcast, that notorious 6.07 two-way, it wasn't accurate. And it was that inaccuracy that let the sea in (to continue Peter’s wave metaphor) not the allegations themselves.
As to Greg’s defenestration … well, he's spoken for himself on that. Short version - it’s a bit simple minded to reduce it to Downing Street’s revenge or Governors second guessing what Downing Street wanted or expected and flexing regulatory muscles.
Chains
Peter suggests it would be better if “lovers of editorial freedom” – like me, I suppose – “rattled the chains that tie them down rather than demanded more chains for everyone”.
See above for my view on whether I was ever "chained".
But the idea that I or anyone else who signed that Times letter did so to demand "chains" for everyone is bunk.
Canard
Unsurprisingly, the old phone-hacking/MPs’ expenses canard waddles on stage, too ... though once again, Peter’s memory is slightly at fault.
Chris Patten didn’t quite tell the Society of Editors at the back end of 2011 that the BBC “couldn't have broken either the MPs' expenses story or the phone-hacking scandal”.
What he did say was that the BBC couldn't have “paid for the information on MPs' expenses as the Daily Telegraph did, nor pursued the hacking story at News International as remorselessly as the Guardian campaign did” (my emphasis).
As it happens, I don’t think the good Lord is right on either count. I can’t think of anything in the BBC’s regulatory framework or editorial guidelines that would have stopped me pursuing phone-hacking back in the day if I or one of my reporters had got a sniff of it.
Nor, if we'd got our facts right, can I imagine anyone of my then bosses trying to stop me.
Teeth
And while it would undoubtedly have made for an interesting discussion in the higher echelons of BBC News, I’m not as certain as Lord P is that a whistleblower offering the MP's expenses data would have been turned peremptorily away. Certainly not if one of my former colleagues had been offered it and had really got his or her teeth into it.
Sure, the BBC almost certainly wouldn't have handed over a six figure sized wad of the public’s cash just like that. But there are ways and ways and I don't find it impossible to imagine that one could have been found.
Plus, there would have been little difficulty in a genuine ex post facto public interest justification - the acid test. 
Called to account
But in the end, tying the post-Leveson debate in these kinds of knot is all about trying to delay the inevitable.
It won't.
We know there's overwhelming public support for Leveson's proposals or something very close to them - not to "chain" the press nor impose broadcasting style regulation.
But to do something very simple and very overdue.
To place the last remaining unaccountable power in the land - the press - in the same position it insists on for all other powerful institutions.
To make it accountable to the public.