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Liz Gerard’s Notebook

Targeting the BBC, when is a child not a child, rape statistics, Paris riots, IPSO, Section 40, pics of woman shopping and front page of the fortnight.

By Liz Gerard

Liz Gerard’s Notebook

Target BBC

The Sun was out to get the BBC.

It is not OK for men of wealth, power or influence to use their position to take advantage of young, vulnerable or more junior people, sexually or otherwise. That should be a given.

Those who do deserve exposure. This can sometimes be the case even where no laws have been broken. If you live in the public eye, you can expect any questionable behaviour to come under scrutiny. Public opinion of you will be determined by your actions, whether it is “legitimately” claiming the cost of a bath plug for your second home on expenses or visiting porn websites.

It follows, therefore, that there might be genuine public interest should a well-known TV presenter be found to have an unconventional personal or financial relationship with a younger person, even if neither did anything wrong in the eyes of the law. We saw that a few weeks back with Phillip Schofield, where his career was destroyed by what he termed a “legal but unwise” affair. In that case, he had known his lover-to-be since he was a teenager and had helped to arrange for him to work on his television programme. There were clear questions to be answered about grooming and abuse of power. ITV was pilloried, with the press demanding how much it knew and when.

The Sun story that has dominated the news for the past few days is of a different order. The initial allegations came from a single source – the mother and stepfather of the young person in question. None of the parties in the story was named and neither of the two central figures – both adults and free to act as they chose within the law – was approached to give their version of what had happened. When the younger party got wind of what their estranged parents were saying, they tried to contact the Sun personally and sent a lawyer’s letter describing the central claims as “rubbish”. The paper just ignored this and published anyway, without even a fig leaf of balancing denial in the last sentence.

This all seemed to run totally counter to the conventional “sting” approach of gathering ammunition and then putting it to the target just before publication. But the presenter was never the target, Huw Edwards was both the ammunition and the collateral damage: The Sun was out to get the BBC.

The parents had, according to the Sun’s reports, made a complaint in May and had felt they had got nowhere; they had also been to the police and found no success there, so had gone to the Sun. Maybe they were at their wits’ end with worry and didn’t know which way to turn. Three years seems a long time to watch all this happening before taking action, but perhaps they had only recently found out. Had they tried contacting the presenter direct?

Lots of questions for the BBC, but none for the presenter.

Strangely, the Sun was full of “questions the BBC must answer” about the failings of its investigation, but devoid of “questions the presenter must answer”. MPs were soon on the bandwagon and before you knew it everyone was running headlines about “BBC in crisis” and the “BBC presenter sex scandal”. What scandal? I think it takes more than one woman’s allegations about her wayward offspring to constitute a scandal.

These were the two elements of the first chapter of this saga that I found so troubling: the silence from either of the two key figures and the widespread assumption that the BBC is somehow responsible for the private activities of its staff. If a Sun journalist gets a bit drunk and gropey while off-duty, would the gropee seek retribution via his employer? And if they did, would the Sun instigate an investigation? Would they suspend said journalist? Social media provide a fairly rich seam of clues to the answer to that one. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Ah, but we pay for the BBC. It’s public interest because it’s financed from the public purse. OK. We also pay for the fire brigades, hospitals, schools. If a firefighter, doctor, teacher started sending inappropriate messages to people unrelated to their work (I’m obviously not talking about patients or students), would we expect the fire chiefs, health or education authorities to weigh in and take action? Of course not. Newspapers that are so uppity about “privacy laws by stealth” would be outraged if workers’ private lives were policed by their employers. What about personal freedoms?

And how many mad and malicious allegations do we imagine are made about television stars? This was a question I’d been pondering, and director-general Tim Davie obliged with an answer on Tuesday: 250 in the past six months, so many that there is a sort of triage unit to sift through them. High-profile presenters are at high risk from fantasists and there is always the bandwagon effect – look at what happened with Operation Yewtree and all those DJs. Some were guilty, some were “victims” of anachronistic rethink, others had their lives turned upside down for no reason. How hard it is to judge whether “they’re all at it” or “everyone wants a slice of the cake” – a question also relevant to journalists and phone hacking. Look at that BBC documentary the other week, with Evan Harris finding “evidence” of hacking in every corner, while Neil Wallis was accusing litigants of jumping on a gravy train.

Once a complaint was made, however, the BBC was duty-bound to look into it. And it seems to have made a hash of it. Which was the point the Sun was trying to make all along. Nobody should think for a moment that it was motivated by concern for the welfare of this young person – the paper doesn’t have a fat cuttings file overflowing with examples of its compassion for crack addicts – or even by the prospect of a scoop of outing a household name as a possible sexual predator, although that was a meaty bonus. It was the BBC that was in its crosshairs.

It got what it wanted. The rest of Fleet Street piled in and it was panic stations at Broadcasting House to the extent that the first half of the main evening news bulletins for the past three nights has been dominated by agonising over the man who should have been in the chair. It’s only a matter of time before Reeta Chakrabarti dons a white dress and starts the bulletin “First of all, are you all right?”

Outside of the mainstream, though, questions were being asked about the Sun’s journalism, and when the lawyer’s “rubbish” letter dropped, it looked as though – for all its doubling down – the paper had messed up royally. But BBC journalists rode to its rescue by reporting that another young person who had been in contact with the presenter through a dating app had been on the receiving end of menacing and abusive messages. These had been sent from the presenter’s BBC phone after he was threatened with exposure.

That would never probably never have come to light without that Sun “scoop”. Nor would a third young adult’s claim that the presenter broke lockdown rules for an assignation, which provided the Sun with its Day Five splash. Meanwhile most other titles were leading on the second accuser – and even the FT had a big chunk in the middle of the front.

The career of the BBC’s most highly-paid and the country’s most highly-respected news presenter – the Richard Dimbleby of the age, the authoritative voice of the Queen’s funeral and the King’s coronation, for heaven’s sake – has almost certainly been wrecked, his life thrown into turmoil. A man who has spoken publicly of his battles with depression is now in hospital; his wife, whose statement ended the guessing game, and their five children are asking for privacy. Good luck with that. No one’s going to let it go. News at Ten piled on the agony with another 20 minutes of a half-hour bulletin last night and it’s the splash for every paper, bar the FT (again a big chunk on the front), this morning.

And look at how most of them, including the BBC, have covered the latest developments. From the moment Reeta Chakrabarti appeared on the ten o’clock set on Monday, any doubts as to who the “unnamed presenter” was must have disappeared. With BBC stars lining up all weekend to say, “It’s not me”, Edwards’s silence had been audible. If he were not the man, would he not have insisted on being in position as usual – even if he had been on holiday in the Seychelles or in bed with flu. As the most senior news reader on nearly half a million a year (as we learnt yesterday), he would surely have had the clout to bump anyone else rostered for the slot.

Most of the world already knew.

So most of the world knew. Yet the headline last night and in most papers this morning (including the Sun which, one hopes, knew all along) was “It’s Huw”, as though it were some great revelation. Some made the point that it was his wife, Vicky Flind, who had named him; Metro went for the “confirmation” approach with “It is Huw”.

The news here was not the id, but the facts that (a) he was in hospital and (b) two police forces had looked into the initial family’s allegations and found nothing criminal to investigate. It was almost as if Fleet Street collectively – with the honourable exceptions of the Mirror and i – and BBC News could not face what their efforts of the past week had done. The Mail trod a more sophisticated line, with its “My husband has mental health issues”, which came across almost as an excuse for past misjudgements, rather than “he was known to be vulnerable to depression and is now in hospital thanks to all this”.

Perhaps with Caroline Flack in mind, The Sun has said it will not print any further allegations. It doesn’t need to. The damage is done. As ever in these sorts of cases, more people are emerging from the woodwork to take a pop; others will pick up the baton: Lucy Manning was reporting last night that newsroom colleagues are now accusing their man of all sorts. Her bosses upstairs are meanwhile having to sift the grudges from the reality, the legal from the unacceptable, all the time with plenty of “helpful” advice from such luminaries as the PM and Beeb-bashers across Westminster, Fleet Street, Twitter and beyond.

Edwards is far from the first such case: Frank Bough, Richard Bacon and Angus Deayton were all dumped by the corporation after News of the World revelations of drug taking (although Bacon is back on air and Deayton appears in a Radio 4 comedy). But they had broken the law. Huw Edwards has certainly been foolish, but – as with Schofield – there is no evidence as yet (beyond the possible lockdown breach) that he did anything illegal. What price privacy and the rights of consenting adults to behave as they choose when there is a baying mob outside wanting to destroy you?

It won’t be the thousands paid to that “young person” that will do for Edwards; it will be the texts that made someone in the newsroom “uncomfortable”. Papers that pooh-pooh people who “mistake” banter for harassment and those who see “a demand for high standards” as bullying – papers that were appalled when Dominic Raab was “forced out of office” – will be first in line to make sure the BBC “puts its house in order”. Always forgetting what goes on in their own newsrooms.

And while there is a coyness with the gender-neutral phraseology surrounding the accusers (a normally alien concept for the anti-woke Sun), it is hard to escape the feeling that there is homophobia at the heart of both this and the Schofield “scandal”. Would there have been so much outrage or even interest had they been involved with young women? I suspect “she” and “the girl” would have been spattered through the copy; the “they” construction that is supposed to show sensitivity rather masks the nudge-nudge revelation of a “dirty secret” – a secret that is absolutely not the Sun’s to divulge.

Coming of age

Shamima Begum was 15...

The younger person in the Sun’s first story is 20, yet was referred to throughout its reporting as a “child”, someone vulnerable and in need of protection. Shamima Begum was 15 when she bunked off school to go to join the intifada in the Middle East. She and her schoolfriends had clearly been vulnerable, since they had been groomed and radicalised in this country. The Sun referred to her as an “IS bride” and treats her as being entirely responsible for her own predicament. She is now, thanks to Sajid Javid, stateless and the Sun is fully behind that decision to strip her of her citizenship.

Is this what you call consistency?

On a similar theme, here is the Sun in 1983 (courtesy of Mic Wright, who dug out that classic Stick It Up Your Punter) celebrating the just-turned-16 Samantha Fox’s decision to give up school for a career posing topless for page 3.

Long memories.

The Sun has, of course, moved on over the past 40 years; page 3 has gone and, thanks to likening footballers to gorillas and whingeing about newsreaders in hijabs, its editor of those days has become a “non-person”. But, as mentioned earlier, he is still busy tweeting. He’s been defending his old paper robustly and has been desperate to get Edwards’s name out there – all but outing him yesterday before Vicky Flind made her statement. Now he’s making further claims (that I won’t repeat) that the BBC had known about “forever” and citing a photoshopped image as evidence of bringing the corporation into disrepute. As I say, the Sun may have said it won’t publish further allegations, but there are plenty who will.

Meanwhile, one of MacKenzie’s successors, David Yelland, has been giving the paper a hard time. Contrast the two former editors’ reaction to the naming of Edwards. It’s totally unscientific and a moving target, but I am a little heartened by the fact that Yelland wishing him well has more than 5,000 “likes” against 3,000 for MacKenzie’s latest attack on the BBC and 300 for the “bare rear end” tweet.

Desperate to get Edwards’s name out there.
Giving his former paper a hard time.

Oh, and while we’re sitting in the glasshouse throwing stones at the “BBC star” who “broke lockdown laws”, it’s worth noting that the Downing Street party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral that led to 20 fines for breaches of lockdown was a leaving bash for Boris Johnson’s media adviser James Slack. Who is now deputy editor of the Sun.

Short memories.

Rape statistics go under-reported

The ONS reckons that in the year to March 2022, that 798,000 women and 275,000 men had been raped.

While acres of newsprint have been devoted to the BBC presenter and his reported predilection for explicit photographs, viewed at a distance, less space has been found for the latest rape statistics. Cases of actual unwanted physical assault. The government announced on Monday that it was ahead of its target to bring the number of rape prosecutions back to 2016 levels by the end of this parliament. Just pause for a minute, it is pleased that things aren’t quite as dire as they were seven years ago, because in the interim they had got a lot worse.

The Guardian had campaigners saying it was “too early to celebrate”, the Telegraph highlighted a “new approach” that was to end victim-shaming (great heavens, have we only just got round to that) and Melanie Phillips was back in the Times the next day to say that this was a strategy based on a myth and that we couldn’t go round believing all women and treating all men as suspects.

So, let’s put some numbers to this great progress. The figures released on Monday showed that an average of 1,079 cases were sent by police to the CPS each quarter last year, of which an average of 472 led to charges. I make that 4,316 referred to the CPS and 1,888 – a little under half – ending up in court. CPS statistics that cover a slightly different time frame – for the year to July rather than December last year – put the conviction rate at 68%. That would mean about 1,300 convictions a year.

Now let’s look at some more official numbers, this time from the ONS, which reckoned that in the year to March 2022, 798,000 women and 275,000 men had been raped. More than a million people raped, with less than 2% seeing their attacker brought to justice. Funnily enough, while we obsess about a TV personality and his liking for erotic photographs, none of these figures has ever featured on any front page for a whole week.

And here are some more figures to put the story into some kind of context.

There are currently more than 200 Metropolitan police officers under investigation for sexual assault. That’s just one force. And 57 MPs are under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct. That’s about 9% - or 13% if you assume all the suspects are men. And they include a Conservative accused of rape who has not only been neither named nor suspended, but looks set to stand as a candidate in the next election.

But the BBC, that’s the rotten barrel we need to look into and vilify.

In less important news...

OK, so most of the rape stats (other than the positive government gloss with lots of “aren’t we doing well” quotes from the home secretary) and the Met and MP investigations were hardly fresh news. But how about a teacher being stabbed by a pupil in a school corridor and the whole institution going into lockdown for hours? Not exactly American mass shooting levels of fear and horror, but nor, thank goodness, an everyday occurrence. Then there was Joe Biden’s flying visit ahead of the Nato summit, meeting both the king and the prime minister. Again, not something that happens every day.

With these competing events, the BBC still made the lead for six of our national dailies and was on every front in some guise; the Guardian, Times, Mirror, i and Sun managed not a word on the front on the stabbing (well the Sun was preoccupied, but what was the excuse for the others, which preferred Madonna getting better, Harry Styles not being special and Taylor Swift ticket sales?). The Mail had the teacher as its main picture, the Express put him in the puff, but hats off to Metro for splashing on the kids’ message from their classrooms: “It’s ok, we’re safe”.

Paris riots threaten Brits’ holiday plans

In these agenda-driven days there does seem to be a slowness to pick up on hard news stories like that stabbing. Or maybe we’ve become so inured by the horrors across the Atlantic that we don’t see it as extraordinary when something similar occurs closer to home.

The Guardian put it on page 4.

The video of the shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk by a traffic policeman in a Paris suburb last month shocked me to the core. This was France, not trigger-happy America. Yet our papers didn’t seem to regard it as anything to write home about. The Times alone ran a story the next day – changing up a foreign page to squeeze in an Adam Sage double column about the shooting sparking riots. The Evening Standard was on the case during the afternoon, but – aside from the Guardian, which put it on page 4 – the story still didn’t arouse the dailies. As the riots spread, the Telegraph ran the story on its last foreign page, the Mail on 27, the Express on 22, and the Times on page 30.

Next day, the Times and Guardian had photographs of Merzouk’s mother leading the protests on their front pages, pointing to spreads inside.

Merzouk’s mother makes the front page of The Guardian.

The Telegraph thought Andy Murray warming up for Wimbledon more compelling and when it did get round to reporting on the violence on its first foreign page, it came in the form of a dig at the president with “Macron rocks with Elton while Paris burns”. The Mirror, which had seven pars and a picture that day, caught up on the Elton John gig 24 hours later, stealing most of the Telegraph’s heading: “Macron dances while France burns”.

The Mirror, like the Telegraph, focused on Macron.

By now, the Telegraph had well and truly cottoned on to the scale of the disturbances, promoting them to the splash. And not just any splash; it went for it whole hog, with a two-line full-width banner, striking photograph, sober puff across the titlepiece and the column one fripperies stripped away. This was particularly commendable, considering the usual demands to project all the soft Saturday offerings. But was it concern about the "vermin" threatening our neighbour’s peace and democracy that catapulted the story to prominence? Or did the key lie in the sub-deck: “British tourists warned of curfews”?

An impressive cover that had a striking photograph.

Ah! Now we can put a union flag on the story, we know it really matters. The Times, too, splashed on France. But here it was just another standard double-column lead to be squeezed in among the Saturday promotions and the obligatory Kate picture (more of that later). Its message? Four days after the point-blank shooting dead of a teenager sitting in his car – by a police officer – we finally care. Because it might spoil our holidays.

"Because it might spoil our holidays."

How very dare they?

The usual suspect titles (ie. most of them) were unimpressed by this verdict.

The Sun has had quite a bit of unwanted publicity this past couple of weeks, starting with IPSO requiring it to publish a front-page pointer to its adjudication that Jeremy Clarkson’s exposition on his visceral hatred of Meghan Markle was out of order. This was a deeply unpleasant column that was found to have violated the Editors’ Code on the ground of sexism: he hated Meghan as much as Nicola Sturgeon and Rose West – the key being that they were all women. Presumably if he’d compared her with Sturgeon and Fred West the complaints would have failed.

The usual suspect titles (ie. most of them) were unimpressed by this verdict, as, indeed, were the usual suspect commentators (ie. most of them) who think our press is lawless and out of control. For different reasons obviously. The papers, as ever, banged on about a “chilling” effect on the free press; the commentators on the toothless regulator letting the paper and Clarkson off scot free.

The Times went so far as to run a leader in which it accused IPSO of over-reaching itself. This included this extraordinary sentence: “Following mass complaints from disgruntled individuals and two lobby groups…the press regulator IPSO chose to get involved.” Excuse me? There were some 25,000 complaints. What was the regulator supposed to do? Say “We’re not going to look into it?” There might be some validity to the argument that it reached the wrong conclusion, but how could it have opted to “sit this one out”?

The leader went on to state that many complaints are made by vested interest groups eager to suppress views with which they disagree and that the “ill-judged ruling” should concern all defenders of a free press.

Well, now here’s a thing. I think that column was utterly obnoxious and I don’t for a minute think that the Sun having to run a slim panel across its front saying “We’ve been naughty” will damage press freedom. But nor am I convinced by the “it broke the code on grounds of sexism” finding. It does smack of “so many people hated this, we’ve got to uphold the complaints, but since the code pretty much allows columnists to write anything they like, however nasty, on what basis?” I don’t think the piece was as egregious as Katie Hopkins’s “cockroaches” or Kelvin MacKenzie’s objection to having the news read by a woman in a hijab – both of which were cleared by the regulator.

Despite being cleared, both Hopkins and MacKenzie soon found that the Sun was no longer in need of their services. Hopkins moved briefly to the Mail Online – too unpalatable for the print edition – and soon for the web as well. MacKenzie is left to sharing his increasingly bizarre opinions on Twitter. The Sun won’t dump Clarkson yet, but his card is well and truly marked and others, most particularly Amazon, might find that subscribers aren’t quite as enamoured of him as they once were. The court of public opinion can sometimes be more powerful than any tribunal.

None of which is to say that IPSO is an effective regulator. It isn’t. I recall sitting across a table from the previous chairman Sir Alan Moses, a montage of anti-immigration front pages between us. He looked at them in dismay and said there was nothing IPSO could do about them – but that the police could take action for incitement to racial hatred.

If you have a regulator that thinks it is powerless to do anything to call newspapers to book even when what they are publishing likely breaks the law, that regulator is not working.

The Opposition, err…, opposing

Regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s becoming a Saturday feature for the Times, which was back with another leader last weekend – this one promoted from third to second place. And this was even more extraordinary.

You will recall that a decade ago, almost every paper in the land was up in arms about Section 40 of the upcoming Crime and Courts Bill, which could leave papers involved in libel trials having to pay both sides’ costs – even if they won. The way to avoid this was to sign up to a press regulator that had been approved by a recognition panel established by royal charter and intended to be completely independent of the industry and government.

At the time there was no such regulator, so Section 40 remained hypothetical. But in 2017, Impress, which had the backing of Hacked Off and nearly £4m of indirect financial support from Max Mosely’s charitable trust, passed all the Leveson tests and won recognition.

By then, the Press Council that had morphed into the Press Complaints Commission had morphed again into Ipso and all the big players were signed up to that. So Section 40 was a big deal again. A real risk. (The thinking behind it – however flawed it might have been – was not to go against natural justice, but to encourage mediation and reduce the number of cases going to court, but the Press interpreted it as an attempt to coerce them into letting “Mosely’s mob” tell them what they could print.)

Even with Impress in place, Section 40 has never been brought into force and now the government is moving to fulfil a manifesto promise to repeal it. In spite of by-election losses and recent resignations, the Conservatives still have a healthy majority, so there should be no difficulty in getting the measure through Parliament. But The Times was outraged that Labour “which has displayed a predilection for press regulation in the past” wasn’t planning to troop into the lobby with the government.

It takes some chutzpah.

This shack is built of the same breeze blocks and wood offcuts as the Mail’s hut in which it fulminated about the opposition voting against new laws to restrict the right to strike. That was framed as “Labour doesn’t want to save lives”. Now the Times is saying “Labour doesn’t care about press freedom.” It takes some chutzpah for two papers whose opinion pages are full of people railing about how we all have to think in a certain approved way nowadays (see below) to complain because opposition MPs (the job description is sort of in the name) aren’t voting with the government.

The Times leader was clearly looking ahead to an expected Starmer administration and raising now its concerns about how it might plan to change the media landscape. But in doing so, it over-egged its pudding by talking about “a blatant attempt at state coercion of the press” and a “state media regulator”, which does not exist, concluding, “for all its imperfections, the British press does not need state control, or laws meant to encourage it. And it never will.”

As Michael Winner would have said: “Calm down dear.”

Forbidden thoughts?

It’s not only the imaginary “state regulators” that want to determine what newspapers can print and what people can say, the assaults on freedom of expression are coming from all angles. Here’s Richard Littlejohn: “These days only one world view is permissible…” a view that runs counter to everything the newspaper that published the column believes. So here he is expressing his forbidden thoughts in the paper that happens to be the biggest selling daily in Britain, along with a website that reaches some 14 million people; views that are also shared by many of the people who actually run the country as well as rival news organisations. Free speech, eh?

Oh, and perhaps the subs at the Mail could learn to spell?

The Duchess of Wales

The Mail is, of course, one of the few papers that continues to invest in staff and keep faith with such old-fashioned skills as sub-editing. The Times seems to have given up on any notion of subs playing a meaningful role – ie. being allowed to think about what they’re dealing with – beyond cutting to fit and pushing through. Here’s a page one story puffing the serialisation of Valentine Low’s book about the royals. “The Duchess of Cambridge….” Hasn’t anyone told them she was “promoted” nine months ago? She’s had the sapphire and diamond ring for years, now she has the title to go with it.

Where was the sub?

Spot the difference

One is the report of an all-party inquiry, held in public, that took evidence on oath from the people involved. The other is the report of a private internal Cabinet Office investigation that did not speak to the central person involved.

Woman goes shopping

Beggars belief.

This Notebook is primarily concerned with print journalism, but sometimes it strays onto newspapers’ websites. And sometimes what it sees there beggars belief. Like the news that a woman goes shopping at supermarkets. Not just any woman, but one who was married to a Hollywood actor THREE DECADES ago. And she doesn’t just buy stuff. She grabs it. And there are eleven, yes eleven, pictures of her pushing the trolley to her car to prove it. If you want to see them all, they are handily put together in a gallery of 21 photographs, including some oldies of her in happier days with ex Kevin Costner.

This is why we need to allow columnists to be nasty, why regulators mustn’t be given teeth, why opposition MPs must vote with the government, why everyone else should be allowed a different world view, why it’s ok to foment hatred against minorities and to disregard the plight of the disabled and underprivileged. It’s all about the freedom of the press. Because we are vital for democracy. We hold those in power to account. And we watch women do their shopping.

But the same news organisation’s print edition doesn’t report that the former prime minister failed to meet a legal deadline to hand over his lockdown telephone, adding contempt of court to his record of contempt of parliament and contempt of the Queen (maybe he was preoccupied because his latest wife had just given birth to his latest baby – which was, of course, reported). Or that a minister ordered cartoon murals at an asylum centre to be painted over because they were “too welcoming” to immigrant children.

Priorities, eh?

Front page of the fortnight

I think this speaks for itself.

Liz Gerard’s Notebook is a fortnightly column published in the InPubWeekly newsletter. To be added to the mailing list, enter your email address here.