Dealing with the devil

It may just have been one of those coincidences but just after the Leveson Inquiry heard from Kate and Gerry McCann I was listening to the Media Show on BBC Radio 4, including an interview with former News of the World Features Editor Jules Stenson who was bemoaning what was happening.

His argument was that witnesses at the inquiry had made statements which had gone unchallenged. Tabloid newspapers, he said, had been ‘smeared’ with ‘no right of reply’. Having heard the two hour testimony of the McCanns it was hard not to laugh but there is a more serious point here. Journalists – and as Stenson rightly pointed out only 16 of the NoW’s staff of more than 200 are the subject of the police investigation into hacking – are concerned that when Lord Leveson’s job is done they will face an over-restrictive regulatory regime. That is a legitimate concern but it must not be allowed to cloud the central issue – something has to be done to curb media excesses.

This whole thing was triggered by revelations about ‘phone hacking but it isn’t that activity, which is illegal in any case, that we need to focus on. The law can deal with anyone found guilty of hacking but regulation needs to be tightened to deal with all the other instances in which some newspapers and some of their journalists act in unacceptable ways.

Kate and Gerry McCann gave us an insight into what it’s like being at the centre of a media storm.
Yes, they needed publicity to help in the search for their daughter; yes media attention on Madeleine’s disappearance was legitimate but none of that justifies what followed – the invasion of every aspect of the McCann’s life.

During my ‘media expert’ appearance in ITV Central’s report on the McCanns’ evidence one of the men in a vox pop recorded in their village said the couple had been given more publicity over Maddy’s disappearance than other families in the same position. His view was that they’d been treated pretty fairly. I can’t sympathise with that view anymore than I can spare a tear for those poor old smeared tabloid hacks in Jules Stenson’s view of events.

In his evidence Steve Coogan said he had never entered ‘a Faustian pact’ with the media as some celebrities choose to do. The McCann’s were given no choice about ‘having a relationship’ with the media but they must have felt very much as if they were dealing with the devil.

NoW – miss you more than you could know

Found myself on BBC WM shortly before James Murdoch’s latest appearance before the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport committee. So as he prepared for another session of questions about what he did or didn’t know about phone hacking I was being asked if I missed the News of the World.

It was a question to which I hadn’t given much (if any) thought since the paper closed until WM called to set up the interview. That lack of consideration might immediately suggest the NoW’s passing had left me unmoved but on reflection  – go on, ask yourself the same question – I was left with the inescapable feeling that without it around something important was missing.

I don’t mean there was a gap next to the Sunday morning marmalade pot, largely because I can’t remember the last time I bought the News of the World (no, not even ‘just for the football’) but on two levels the hole left by its demise has not been filled. First there’s the matter of sales. The Mail on Sunday may have just reported an increase in circulation and the other tabloids – Sunday Mirror, People, and Daily Star on Sunday – may also have seen some benefit in the short term but overall there are fewer people reading Sunday papers. For the missing million – for that’s about what the number is – nothing has replaced the ‘Screws’.

More importantly, I think, is the investigative reporting deficit. I know much of it was tacky – I don’t much care in what language Max Mosley likes his bottom spanked – but it did have a track record of exposing wrongdoing that needed to be exposed. You need look no further than the case of the Pakistani cricketers fixing case to see that. None of this excuses what seems to have been a culture of overstepping the bounds of acceptable behaviour but it does raise an important issue as Lord Leveson sets out on his inquiry into the role of the police and the press in ‘hackgate’.

What he finds and whatever shape the regulation of the press takes in the future it is imperative that nothing is done to further hamper journalists’ legitimate pursuit of stories that are genuinely in the public interest. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about but in The Times today Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, reflects on the decrease in cases in which someone is seeking a privacy order to prevent publication of a story. “Possibly it is because newspapers, post phone hacking, have been rather careful in not engaging in controversial stories,” he says. Of course there are other reasons but we don’t need an over-cautions press. We especially don’t need it when elsewhere today Lord Patten is reported in the Guardian as saying’ the BBC is unable to conduct investigations into some of the most important stories of the day – including phone hacking – if they could be construed as having a political bias.’

I think I might be missing the NoW just a little more today.

Living la vida local

While staff at BBC Local Radio stations wait anxiously to learn just who’ll escape the axe and for whom the ominous whistle of its approach will become the sickening thud of its impact, the BBC is calling in a consultant to advise it on the task.

Don’t get me wrong. I have some sympathy with an approach that looks for help in deciding the best way to make savings given that savings must be made. It’s just that the timing seems off, to say the least, and in staff relations and PR terms the decision is inexplicable. I am reminded of former Deputy Director General Alan Protheroe, who told a meeting of news editors at one particularly troubled time for the Corporation that while Auntie had always had the ability to shoot herself in the foot her aim was creeping higher!

These days my only connection with the BBC is as a licence payer so it is in that capacity that I’m left wondering why you bring in John Myers after you’ve announced what Delivering Quality First will mean to local output rather than enlisting his experience earlier in the process? To be fair again (old Beeb habits die hard) David Holdsworth, Controller of English Regions and the man at the top of the BBC Local Radio tree, makes the point that unlike other services there is little or no room for overhead cuts in local radio because it has to maintain 40-odd station premises. The upshot of that is that the true impact of the budget cut is greater for staff and output.

On Radio 4’s Feedback, said Controller found himself being questioned by a listener. It cannot have been coincidence that the listener was from Shropshire, where Holdworth’s BBC career began. David spoke with sincerity about how proud he was that the station was highly valued by its audience but there was at this point a chasm between his view of the service and that of the listener. David referred (more than once from memory) to BBC Local Radio’s important journalism. The listener made the point thast the station was about so much more.

Like David I am proud of having been a founding part of that station (and to have made some contribution to others) but I return to the point of my previous blog that the BBC management long ago lost sight of what made its stations special. The standardisation of the last few years opened the way for the cuts now taking place.

I couldn’t help but smile to learn that my former Shropshire colleague is turning to Myers, who was cutting his radio teeth at BBC Carlisle in my early reporting days there. He’s come a long way since then but I know he hasn’t forgotten Lamb Bank – the epitome of local broadcasting – and the listeners’ reaction when it didn’t appear. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that that early lesson might prompt him to urge a loosening of the central straitjacket when he delivers his findings.