Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The best job in Britain ...

... is, without doubt, Controller Radio 4, in spite of the conventional wisdom that the R4 audience excels all others in cantankerous 'nein sehen'.

All the ones I've known - controllers, that is, rather than audiences, including Mark Damazer who's currently handing over to his successor, Gwyneth Williams - found themselves eventually on the receiving end of some very pointed tut-tutting, whispered 'well I nevers' or even 'I says'.

Or worse. There were the Long Wave riots; the Woman's Hour uprising; the UK Theme intifada. Etc.

But it was James Boyle who attracted the most withering looks and sottissmo voce susurrations when he tore up the pre-1998 schedule and replaced it with ... well, with the schedule that remains largely intact to this day.

There are those who think that the best thing a CR4 can do is as little as possible. Manage to do nothing at all - no Anderson's Country, no Go 4 It - and you might be spared the chorus of suppressed sighs that a decision of any kind inevitably triggers.

This is not true. CR4s can do lots if they want - as Mark Damazer quite rightly insists. And he should know, because he did a lot. All of it improving.

At the handing over of the torch, then, here are my three suggestions for Gwyneth Williams; suggestions I am confident will not be embraced. Which explains, of course, why I would never be invited to have a crack at the best job in Britain ... however long I might sit by the 'phone.

Restore Yesterday in Parliament (YIP) to its 0830 half-hour FM slot:

This was the one big thing I think James Boyle got wrong back in 1998.

Before then, Today ran from 0630 to 0830 most of the year - with YIP on both FM and LW from 0830 to 0900 during the parliamentary terms.

But James wanted to do two things: open the network earlier, at 0600, and try to carry as many of Today's 6 million across to the rest of the schedule. YIP on both FM and LW was seen as a barrier - which it was, though not as great a barrier as it seemed to some.

It was a balanced judgment. On the one hand, the possibility of adding a percentage point or two to the 0900 (and beyond) audience. On the other, losing a prime time outlet (morning is prime time in Radioland) for that most basic function of journalism: reporting to us citizens/voters what our representatives are doing in parliament in our name.

If we're serious about restoring the status of parliament - and, as voters in a representative democracy, can we be other than serious about that? - surely there is no better first step than to restore a daily, comprehensive, mainstream report on its business in addition to the late-night Today in Parliament.

Extend The World at One and The World This Weekend to an hour:

OK ... so this might look like special pleading. Perhaps I never quite came to terms with the cut from 40 to 30 minutes ... but listening to WATO and TW2 over the election period should have been enough to persuade anyone that an hour of serious, sober, public affairs journalism in the middle of the day is little short of essential.

Martha Kearney and Shaun Ley have continued the fine forensic interviewing tradition of Hardcastle, Day and Clarke ... but in 30 minutes the opportunities for reporter investigations are fewer than they could be.

Commission a new multimedia, multiplatform World News strand:

The Radio 4 audience is clear on this - they want more world news. It was, perhaps, the most persistent theme of the letters and emails they used to send me.

There's an opportunity here - the BBC has the most extensive global newsgathering operation of any news organisation. Increasingly, its reporters are recruited locally and can offer the kind of insights that British journalists posted from London - however brilliant - never quite achieve.

Plus, audio is finding a new life on the web. Either as deeper, more involving podcasts or in combination with still images or video in those multimedia slideshows I keep ranting on about. Like this; or this; or this multimedia show on the 2010 Iraqi elections.

So what about a new WN title ... created from the ground up as part radio programme, part podcast, part interactive web product?

Like I say, I won't be waiting by the 'phone.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

News of the World and the scalp hunt

It would be a pity if the News of the World phone hacking scandal reduced itself to a hunt for Andy Coulson's scalp.

That's not to say Mr Coulson doesn't have many questions to answer - he does. But so do NewsCorp's management, the Metropolitan Police and the Press Complaints Commission. And arguably, their (selective) inaction in the face of criminal activity is at least as reprehensible as anything Mr Coulson is alleged to have done.

The NotW scandal brings into crisp focus all of the questions about the British press that make it one of the least trusted in the world. Not least the fact that it took an American paper, the New York Times, to mount and publish a proper investigation that finally got people to sit up and take notice.

The British press - with the egregious exception of Nick Davies et al at the Guardian - has been criminally silent. It is impossible to imagine that they would have held their tongue so tightly if this scandal had been about a government department or the nuclear industry.

Andy Coulson is, for all sorts of obvious but unsatisfactory reasons, the chief target. Some of the NotW's victims would relish the prospect of landing a blow on David Cameron - whose press chief Mr Coulson is. The danger is that such an outcome - which would then move the story on to the PM's "judgment" - would leave unexamined stuff that is very, very whiffy indeed.

And we should remember that when Andy Coulson's defenders tell us these new, damning allegations are coming from an unreliable source, they are from a journalist Mr Coulson was, for a time at least, perfectly happy to have working on his staff. And when they tell us that last year's Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee could find no evidence that Mr Coulson knew about routine phone hacking ... they're only telling us part of the story.

A story that's worth reminding ourselves of - or, if your main news source is a NewsCorp title, reading for the first time since those titles virtually ignored the select committee's report when it was published, and wholly ignored any criticisms in it of NewsCorp's obstructive management.

"No evidence"

Let's start with that 'no evidence that Andy Coulson knew' illegal phone hacking was a routine newsgathering technique on his paper - which it was - and that Clive Goodman, who went to jail, was a "rogue".

Here's what the committee says:

439. We have seen no evidence that Andy Coulson knew that phone-hacking was taking place.

Ok ... that seems clear enough. Except;

... that such hacking took place reveals a serious management failure for which as editor he bore ultimate responsibility, and we believe that he was correct to accept this and resign.

And as if to help us judge the veracity of Mr Coulson's assurance that he knew nothing, the committee reminds us:

431. Mr Coulson also said he had "never read a Gordon Taylor story, to the best of my recollection" although, as we have been told, it was Mr Coulson who spiked the story.

Hmmm ... Anyhow, the committee goes on.

440. Evidence we have seen makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Clive Goodman, knew about the phone-hacking. It is unlikely, for instance, that Ross Hindley (later Hall) did not know the source of the material he was transcribing and was not acting on instruction from superiors. We cannot believe that the newspaper's newsroom was so out of control for this to be the case.

441. The idea that Clive Goodman was a "rogue reporter" acting alone is also directly contradicted by the Judge who presided at the Goodman and Mulcaire trial. In his summing up, Mr Justice Gross, the presiding judge, said of Glenn Mulcaire: "As to Counts 16 to 20 [relating to the phone-hacking of Max Clifford, Simon Hughes MP, Andrew Skylett, Elle Macpherson and Gordon Taylor], you had not dealt with Goodman but with others at News International."

All of which makes the testimony of Sean Hoare, to both the New York Times and the BBC R4 PM programme, feel a bit like one piece of the jigsaw the select committee couldn't put its finger on.

The big question, though, always was about the apparent failure of NewsCorp, the Met or the PCC to take NotW's routine illegal phone hacking as seriously as it warranted. Yes, there were the prosecutions over the royal phones ... but as we know, those weren't the only victims of this criminal activity.

Here's what the committee says about this - there's a lot of it, but it's worth reading in full:

442. Despite this, there was no further investigation of who those "others" might be and we are concerned at the readiness of all of those involved: News International, the police and the PCC to leave Mr Goodman as the sole scapegoat without carrying out a full investigation at the time. The newspaper's enquiries were far from 'full' or 'rigorous', as we - and the PCC - had been assured. Throughout our inquiry, too, we have been struck by the collective amnesia afflicting witnesses from the News of the World.

449. The News of the World and its parent companies did not initially volunteer the existence of pay-offs to Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire ...

the private investigator who worked with Clive Goodman and others

... and their evidence has been contradictory. We do not know the amounts, or terms, but we are left with a strong impression that silence has been bought.

455. Gordon Taylor was cited in one of the charges over which Glenn Mulcaire was convicted in 2007. In the civil action, however, the News of the World nonetheless initially resisted the claim, and on a false basis. We consider there was nothing to prevent the newspaper group drafting its confidentiality agreement to allow the PCC and this Committee to be informed of these events, so as to avoid, at the very least, the appearance of having misled us both. We also believe that confidentiality in the Taylor case, and the size of the settlement and sealing of the files, reflected a desire to avoid further embarrassing publicity to the News of the World.

467. In 2006 the Metropolitan Police made a considered choice, based on available resources, not to investigate either the holding contract between Greg Miskiw and Glenn Mulcaire, or the 'for Neville' email. We have been told that choice was endorsed by the CPS. Nevertheless it is our view that the decision was a wrong one. The email was a strong indication both of additional lawbreaking and of the possible involvement of others. These matters merited thorough police investigation, and the first steps to be taken seem to us to have been obvious. The Metropolitan Police's reasons for not doing so seem to us to be inadequate.

472. We accept that in 2007 the PCC acted in good faith to follow up the implications of the convictions of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. The Guardian's fresh revelations in July 2009, however, provided good reason for the PCC to be more assertive in its enquiries, rather than accepting submissions from the News of the World one again at face value. This Committee has not done so and we find the conclusions in the PCC's November report simplistic and surprising. It has certainly not fully, or forensically, considered all the evidence to this inquiry.

It's hard to fault the select committee's reasoning and conclusions - hard, too, not to feel their frustration at being blocked at every turn in trying to get at the truth.

And that's why this scandal shouldn't be allowed to slide into obscure memory the moment someone is able to hang Andy Coulson's bloodied scalp from their belt.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Stained or Sullied

"I am afraid that all of us who blog have been sullied by this experience" writes Conservative blogger Iain Dale today on his friend and, one supposes, rival Paul Staines - who writes pseudonymously as Guido Fawkes.

For it was Paul Staines who led the way in circulating rumours and innuendo about William Hague. If you were to read his latest (1200 Thursday 2 Sept) post, though, you'd have no idea of the nature of the 'story' as he originally developed it.

After the Foreign Secretary's unequivocal statement, the 'story' is, according to Staines, about Mr Hague's failure to employ an efficient press handler. That, and the Foreign Secretary's mistake in releasing the statements he did responding to the innuendos on Staines' blog. Oh, and judgment:

"All in all, he has only himself to blame for being ill-advised and has shown a staggering lack of judgment."

More on 'judgment' in a moment.

But it's the story about the story that's exercising the traditional press: Sky this morning ran a 'moving on' story; while the Mail wondered why Mr Hague felt the need to say so much about his marriage; the Sun, on the other hand, featured a thing it calls 'baby fight heartache'; the Telegraph played it as a straight denial; while the Mirror wondered whether Mr Hague protests too much.

Like so many other political stories that we can't quite put our finger on, it's reduced to the catch-all crime of poor judgment.

But hang on. Poor judgment about what?

Let's not be disingenuous - this was never only, or even principally, an allegation that the Foreign Secretary's judgment was poor in the way he recruited staff ... though, as above, that's part of what it's become. Nor about his sure-footedness at handling the press ... though, again, as above, it's become that.

On 24 August, Staines was 'Just Asking' why:

"young Christopher Myers (25) should go from driving William Hague (49) around his constituency during elections, where according to the Mirror, "they became close during campaigns"

to a special adviser?

And in case you didn't quite get the point, the following day's post was entitled "Looks Like a Bentley" (geddit?), an apparent answer to a question posed by Mandrake in the Daily Telegraph. And if the innuendo in the headline was lost on most of us, it wasn't on Staines' readers ... take a look at the comments, though, with discretion if Sniggering Homophobia isn't your usual setting.

By Sunday 29th, the innuendo had become less subtle in 'Flashback: Hague's Gay Special Adviser":

"This is not the first time that William Hague's choice of Special Adviser has raised questions."

What sort of questions, Paul? Well ...

"what special talent, unseen by the rest of us, does Mr Myers possess?"

And, of course, the post told us, William Hague has form. He'd previously hired a "young, openly gay, relatively unknown figure" as a special adviser.

By Tuesday 31st, all innuendo had been stripped away:

"Exclusive: Hague Shared Night in Hotel Bedroom with SpAd"

'At least one night', the post tells us. And that:

"One witness told Guido that the room sharing couple's body language at breakfast was eye opening."

And that:

"Two national Sunday papers have the evidence but, despite journalists putting considerable resources into the story, their editors are reluctant to pursue it. Perhaps because in the words of the song, 'no one knows what goes on behind closed doors'."

Evidence of what, Staines declines to say.

What's most disappointing about all of this isn't just that a political blog has given currency to unsubstantiated allegations. Nor that it's been done in a way that's encouraged some pretty shocking verbal homophobia.

No, what's most disappointing is that the whole episode shows we still can't shift our political journalism out of a mode in which slurs and innuendo insinuate themselves, even if those slurs aren't even on nodding terms with the truth.

Is it good enough for a political blogger to argue, as Staines does, that his "is only a blog, and it is intended to entertain not save the world" when his 'entertainment' produces real effects in the real world?

And is it good enough for us traditional political journalists to sigh wearily and report on the way a politician is 'tested' ... even if that 'testing' is based on their reaction to untruth, rumour and innuendo we wouldn't ourselves ever report?