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Saturday 1 October 2016

Fraser Nelson’s Free Press Delusion

Even after its litany of failure in holding the Fourth Estate to account, there are still journalists who are prepared to sacrifice their credibility in order to speak up for sham press regulator IPSO, not least among them Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, an agreeable and ostensibly credible presence who has been given a platform by the Telegraph - also owned by the Barclay Brothers - to make his case.
Fraser Nelson - delusional press stooge

The resulting article, titledThe value of our threatened free press is the real Sam Allardyce exposé”, is, sadly, so riven with falsehood and misinformation that it cannot be allowed to stand without response. From Nelson’s first assertion - “A few years ago, Sam Allardyce might have found a little more sympathy for his complaint about having fallen victim to ‘entrapment’. When the Leveson Inquiry was in full swing, and newspapers were the subject of the Metropolitan Police’s largest-ever criminal investigation, journalism itself was in the dock” - the tendency to misrepresentation is inescapable.

Leveson would have meant wrongdoing going unreported? His proposals included safeguards for journalists, to protect them and their publications from vexatious litigants - people like the late Robert Maxwell, who used his lawyers to silence his critics. The idea that Leveson equalled some kind of censorship is totally untrue.

Also totally untrue is the claim “There seemed to be a new consensus: that the nosy press had gone too far and it was time to bring it under democratic (ie political) control”. There was no move to put the press under political control. It gets worse: Nelson tells “it’s only three years since almost every member of the House of Commons voted for a state regulator for newspapers, which threatened the 300-year-old tradition of press independence”. There was no proposal for a state regulator, so there was no vote upon it. And if he means the Royal Charter on press regulation, it was agreed by acclamation - so technically there was no vote, as none was necessary.

The deceit keeps on coming: “Happily, newspapers ignored the new regulator and instead another, independent, one was set up”. There was no regulator for the press to ignore, and IPSO is not independent, except in the pretence of its name.

You think the level of dishonesty is bad? It gets worse still: “Britain now has perhaps the toughest system of self-regulation in the Western world”. Totally untrue. There is no comparative study of press regulation régimes available, and if there was, IPSO would find it beyond challenging to measure up to the systems in place in countries like Denmark, which is underpinned by judicial sanction (although in practice this has never been used), and Finland, which is backed by a strict privacy law.

Denmark and Finland both rank far higher than Britain in the World Press Freedom Index - indeed, Finland has topped the rankings for the past three years. Britain, despite Nelson’s claims, languishes somewhere behind Jamaica and Namibia.

But the Speccy’s editor isn’t finished: he moves right along to MPs’ expenses. “The House of Commons had a culture of MPs claiming taxpayers’ money for things they shouldn’t, from duck houses to second mortgages. It took an intensive investigation by this newspaper to trawl thousands of receipts, and expose the results”. Bullshit. The Telegraph had it served up on two CDs for which it outbid the rest of the press.

Then we get a classic “look over there” moment: “It’s not criminal for Keith Vaz to pay for sex with Eastern European rent boys, but pretty scandalous for him to do so while chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. It took a Sunday Mirror exposé to reveal the truth”. It was yet more scandalous that the press declined to publish what it had on John Whittingdale, who was in charge of overseeing press regulation, and who had been stalling on Section 40 of the Crime And Courts Act.

The press didn’t want Section 40 enacting, so didn’t let the world know about Whitto and the dominatrix he claimed to have met on match.com. When Byline Media put the story out there, the site was excoriated by our supposedly free and fearless press, along with campaigning group Hacked Off, who had nothing to do with it.

And with that, Fraser Nelson is back to the serial dishonesty: “When the press did trip up, with the genuine scandal of phone hacking, the politicians saw their moment to pounce. We now know that the size of the investigation was out of all proportion to the criminality. Some 67 journalists were arrested, of whom 10 were found guilty and sentenced for an average of eight months”. Where do we start with that lot?

The hacking trial was not a political decision. The late and not at all lamented Murdoch Screws was being run as a borderline criminal enterprise. Nelson has lumped in all those arrested subsequent to the Hacking Trial in his number of arrestees. Judges can only sentence in accordance with sentencing guidelines, up to the maximum specified.

The maximum sentence for what Andy Coulson and his pals did was three years. He had no previous convictions. Nelson knows how the system works: this is mere sophistry. But on he goes, back to the rank dishonesty.

During the Leveson-era witch hunts, a new crime was drawn out of thin air: that it was somehow illegal for investigative journalists to pay whistleblowers for information”. No new crime was devised: paying public officials, like Police and prison officers, for information is illegal (the admission before a Commons committee by Rebekah Brooks that her paper had paid Police officers for information refers). 

Then we get mere selective disclosure: “jury after jury concluded that this was a legitimate tool of investigative journalism, very much in the public interest. Acquittal followed acquittal”. Not of the Police and prison officers, it didn’t: many were convicted and had their careers ruined as a result. Worse, they had all been shopped by the Murdoch press, in an effort to persuade the law enforcement authorities to go easy on the idea of a corporate prosecution of News International.

Betraying your sources is perhaps the most heinous crime that a journalist can commit without going to jail. Yet Fraser Nelson, editor of a supposedly upmarket publication, deliberately omits all mention of this. Still, on with the deceit.

The Leveson Inquiry purported to look at the excessive power of the press, but in fact came at a time of great press weakness”. It purported to do no such thing, but merely to “Inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press”.

From deceit we arrive at total lack of self-awareness: “About 5,000 fewer people will pick up a paper today than did last Friday”. Has Fraser Nelson, or indeed any of his fellow editors, ever stopped to ask themselves why that might be? Might it be not unconnected to the punters being unable or unwilling to trust the press? If they’re going to be patronised with agenda-driven propaganda and worse, why bother paying for it?

But he does know whose fault this is (apart from Leveson and Hugh Grant, that is). “The BBC is the hegemon, in the written word as well as the spoken: four times as many people get their news from its website than do from any newspaper”. The BBC, Fraser, is trusted. That’s their USP, and why your pals in the press are languishing.

Still, there’s always a little more propagandising: “An Allardyce-style investigation is the most expensive form of journalism. To set up such an operation takes several people months of preparation, setting up alibis for people and companies”. Rubbish. It was a cheap sting; had it been otherwise, the increasingly desperate and cash-strapped Telegraph would not have become involved.

But do go on: “The Daily Telegraph’s investigation into football greed goes far beyond one man. It’s about the moral corruption in a whole industry, and exposing a culture where it is seen as perfectly acceptable for managers to line their pockets”. So says the acceptable face of an industry which is riven with corruption from top to bottom.

Journalists are bent to the will of editors and proprietors by their pay and perks: the line is handed down, and they must comply, or else. Most of the press is in the hands of Rupert Murdoch (a US citizen), Lord Rothermere (a “non dom”), the Barclay Brothers (resident offshore), and noted pornographer Richard “Dirty” Desmond.

As we saw with the Whittingdale saga, the press exercises power over politicians not just by what they publish, but what they do not (the Murdoch Sun, infamously, had the dirt on Jimmy Savile in 1983, yet did nothing about it). The stench of corruption is so endemic that one suspects Fraser Nelson has had his olfactory glands removed.

Because all the Speccy’s editor can manage is to round off with “Britain is, by international standards, a fairly incorrupt country. But only relentless scrutiny keeps it that way”. It is so “incorrupt” that he is writing his article for the paper which kept the recent HSBC scandal off its front page - because its management was frightened of losing the company’s advertising. That is the kind of pressure to which editors are routinely subjected, as Nelson’s current boss Andrew Neil can testify.

The difference between Neil and the current dispensation at the Tel is that he stood his ground and effectively told the advertiser to shove their threats (and Peter Oborne, of course, threw in the towel with the Tel over their capitulation to HSBC). But the press, despite Fraser Nelson’s pleading, is no longer free enough to resist such coercion.

Press regulation, investigative journalism and the freedom of the press is a most worthwhile subject for discussion. But to churn out this deceitful, dishonest and hypocritical rubbish really will not do. Fraser Nelson is a disgrace to his profession.

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