Matters of inquiry with the BBC and British media

Phone hacking, now pedophilia. The Imperfectionists author Tom Rachman dissects the U.K. media mess.

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As the BBC hyperventilates over grave mistakes in its news coverage, an earlier media scandal prepares to sting anew. The government-ordered Leveson inquiry, prompted by charges of criminal mischief at British tabloids, is expected to issue recommendations this month—perhaps calling for legal curbs on press freedom, a prospect of distress to journos and delight to their targets.

The British press—often dubbed “raucous,” apparently as a compliment—has a tradition of wit and wilfulness, from Samuel Johnson to George Orwell to Christopher Hitchens. Publications investigate boldly, comment amusingly. But there’s oodles of rubbish too, some obtained by dubious means that have included impersonating a sheik and, it is alleged, illegally accessing the voicemail of crime victims and celebrities.

The actor Hugh Grant, enraged by intrusive tabloid reporting, has become a prominent advocate of press regulation. “We’re not the wicked Goliath of the establishment taking on the plucky David of the press,” he wrote recently in The Spectator. “It’s the other way round. They are the establishment. They have effectively run the country for the past 40 years. They are Goliath. We need help.”

Those who oppose regulation insist that only a fraction of the British press engaged in malign practices. And those sinners broke the law—just apply it, they say, and all should be well. The great fear is “statutory regulation,” meaning legislation that, in the worst scenario, could lead to state influence over news coverage.

The muddle-haired mayor of London, Boris Johnson, a conservative journalist before becoming a Conservative politician, wants no such infringements and he extols free speech, even for hateful publications. “To rinse the gutters of public life,” he says, “you need a gutter press.”

As with many aphorisms, the more one looks at it, the less there is to see. High-minded justifications for the gutter press do exist, but cleanliness isn’t among them. The tabloids have not rinsed gutters so much as clogged them, emitting a chunder of trashertainment and an assembly line of straw celebrities, who are propped up, then spat on.

The debate breaks roughly along political lines, with the Labour Party more favourable to press regulation and many Conservatives opposed. Not coincidentally, the most powerful newspapers in Britain are right-leaning, including the two bestselling dailies, the Sun (circulation: 2.4 million) and the Daily Mail (1.9 million), along with the most-read broadsheet, the Daily Telegraph (560,000). The liberals’ broadsheet of record, the Guardian, sells a meagre 205,000 copies a day.

Prime Minister David Cameron, leading an unpopular and fractious coalition government, is awkwardly positioned: he faces pressure from fellow Tories not to legislate the news media, as well as pressure from the public to act, not least because it was he who last year ordered the costly Leveson inquiry, partly to defuse criticism over his ties to journalists accused in the scandal.

While the printed press prepared for bad news from Lord Justice Leveson, a second media scandal exploded, besmirching the most-reputed newsgathering organization in the country, the BBC, which is funded by the public, regulated by the government, and aspires to earnest impartiality. The cause of the scandal couldn’t have been less earnest: a TV presenter known for his peroxide pageboy haircut, wink-nudge humour and extensive charity work that, the police now believe, concealed serial pedophilia; his alleged victims number in the hundreds.

Not only did the BBC put Jimmy Savile on the air for decades, but after his death last year it quashed a television investigation into the sex-abuse accusations for reasons that remain murky. This October, a rival channel, ITV, broadcast its own exposé on Savile, after which came a flood of abuse allegations. Why had the BBC failed to act? Was someone protecting its long-time star?

The broadcaster ordered its own inquiries, but this failed to quell the outrage. Then, as if to compensate for its misplaced restraint in the Savile case, the same BBC news program broadcast sex-abuse allegations against a former top Tory politician—claims that proved utterly false. As a result, the head of the BBC resigned on Saturday, and other top news officials have stepped aside during internal investigations.

Bungling at the Beeb provides ammunition for those on the right who have long deplored the public broadcaster, accusing it of wasting taxpayers’ money and harbouring a leftist bias. Cameron himself once implied distaste for the organization when discussing budget cuts in Britain: “We are all in it together,” he remarked, “including, deliciously, the BBC.”

The BBC scandal is unrelated to phone-hacking, yet it circles back to the printed press in an unexpected way. A freelance journalist who researched the Savile case months ago says that seven national newspapers declined to buy his story because, he believes, the Leveson inquiry had made them fearful of targeting public figures. Maybe so. But rumours about Savile’s behaviour had circulated for years, and newspapers were hardly shrinking violets back then. Why didn’t they expose Savile long ago?

One explanation is British libel law, which is so strict as to inhibit coverage. Litigious celebrities often choose to file legal complaints in London, also known as “a town named sue.” “The tabloids made me and, if they want, they’ll break me,” Savile said in a 1993 television interview. “Except I won’t go down without a fight. I’ll take everyone down with me.” A year later, one such tabloid, the Sunday Mirror, looked into reports that Savile had sexually assaulted girls at a reform school. But its sources feared confronting a rich celebrity’s lawyers in court; the story was dropped. In 2008, Savile launched proceedings against the Sun over another story linking him to a child-abuse scandal.

One of the producers at the BBC program Newsnight, whose investigation into Savile was shelved last year, says legal concerns delayed him from even proposing the piece. “The victims, as far as we could tell, would be very vulnerable—people who would not stand up in a libel court,” Meirion Jones said. “So it was only when he died that it really became feasible.”

Perhaps the problem isn’t too little regulation, but too much. The system already includes a Press Complaints Commission, which failed to deal with the phone-hacking scandal, and is widely viewed as a flop. The Guardian is advocating an arbitration panel, to be established under law but to operate independently of government. Such a panel might provide a less onerous way to resolve libel claims.

Still, the only guarantee of honourable journalism is a culture of ethics. When competition intensifies, when rewards and dangers increase, journalists face temptation to tweak facts and manipulate sources—unless such actions are absolutely shunned. The ethical code must also include an aspiration to objectivity, so lacking in the most heinous British newspapers and the worst American cable-news shows. Without this, a downward spiral ensues of pandering, politicization, rabble-rousing.

News organizations that demand ethical rigour appear sanctimonious to some in the rough-and-tumble British print media—particularly when the moralists blunder, as a publication like, say, the New York Times sometimes has. But upon doing so, it has sought to remedy its errors, and trumpets them publicly. The Beeb is attempting this now: it has apologized, initiated inquiries, called for a structural overhaul, seen the resignation or removal of top figures, and it broadcast an aggressive hour-long investigation into its own failings called Jimmy Savile—What the BBC Knew.

Serious news organizations prize credibility. They are not merely businesses, earning by churning. They acknowledge a civic role, and are willing to pay for it. Sadly, fewer consumers are, accustomed as they’ve become to free information online; they risk getting what they pay for. The farcical background to all this talk of principles is that the print media in Britain are in irreversible decline, with circulations plummeting and losses in the millions of pounds every month. British news will look very different in the future than it does today. If lawmakers take action, they may be regulating the past.

Journalists used to boast that theirs is not a profession with a licensing body, but a trade open to anyone with a pen and a willingness to ask questions. That was never entirely true—to be heard, one had to join the established news media. Nowadays, the old claim has validity: anyone can publish, and nearly everyone is.

Disconcertingly, the style of news that proliferates in the digital age—lowbrow subjects, the frantic competition for attention, the uncertain rules—most closely mirrors that of the tabloids. Can there be a culture of journalistic ethics online? Who would instill it and how? Or will the meaning of “news” keep getting looser, with inquiries to patch up society in the aftermath?

Tom Rachman is a Canadian author based in London. His bestselling novel The Imperfectionists is set at an international newspaper in Rome.

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