Isn’t the Daily Telegraph great? That, in essence, is the question Fraser Nelson asks in his article (in the Telegraph) entitled ‘The value of our threatened free press is the real Sam Allardyce exposé’. But in his eagerness Nelson is in danger of prompting the opposite answer to the one he is hoping for.
Here are 10 ways in which he gets it wrong, or where if he is not actually wrong he is hypocritical.
- Nelson calls the Allardyce sting ‘a classic example of what newspapers ought to be doing’ – Wrong.
Few can have sympathy for the sacked England manager but this is not quite Watergate or the Panama Papers, or even the Winterbourne View care home scandal. Indeed, as Daniel Taylor patiently explained in the Guardian, there was rather less to the Telegraph’s scoop than met the eye. Having failed to prove any wrongdoing, the paper played the greed card instead, to considerable effect.
The sting showed us something we knew: people will often behave foolishly if you offer them a lot of money. It is hardly brave or great journalism to catch a football manager in this way, but if this is the best the Telegraph can do, then why not take on someone genuinely powerful and make a difference? (For the avoidance of confusion, this is not a defence of Sam Allardyce – I share the views on that of the Guardian’s chief football writer. Nor is it a call for a ban on deception by journalists.)
- There is hypocrisy here too.
First, the Telegraph is a strange place to find outrage about greed. Isn’t it part of the Telegraph creed that the rich must be allowed to get richer?
Second, the paper that gave us the artful headline ‘England manager for sale’ is the same paper that was accused by its own political editor of allowing its journalism to be influenced by a big advertiser – a case, you might say, of ‘Telegraph journalism for sale’. (The paper denied those claims, though they found support here . No independent investigation was carried out, though it was demanded.) Nelson doesn’t mention any of this.
- Nelson writes: ‘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’ – Wrong.
They did not vote for a ‘state regulator’, as Nelson would know if he had read the relevant documents. They voted for a system recommended by an independent public inquiry that had sat for a year and heard evidence from every relevant party. That system was explicitly not ‘state regulation’ but independent regulation – that is, independent both of the government and of the newspapers. This was necessary because, though national papers had been found guilty of ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’, their tame regulator had failed disastrously to hold them to account. (As for the ‘300-year-old tradition of press independence’, no one with any knowledge of history would use such a phrase – see here).
- Nelson writes of the Sunday Mirror’s recent exposé of Keith Vaz: ‘This is the role the press has always played, often to the fury of politicians’ – Wrong.
The press has certainly not ‘always’ played this role. It does so only when it suits its own interests. In the case of John Whittingdale, for example, four newspapers had a story about this Cabinet minister which they could legally have published in the public interest and which would have caused him damage, but they chose instead to conceal it from their readers. Why? Well it may be a coincidence but at that time Whittingdale was Culture Secretary and was making a series of policy decisions that the corporate papers wanted him to.
- Nelson writes, with reference to Allardyce: ‘Greed and conflict of interest fall into a massive category of things that are obviously wrong, but not illegal.’ – Right, but hypocritical.
It is pleasing that at least in principle Nelson understands this ethical point which was discussed so fully at the Leveson Inquiry. It is a pity that, while he appears to want the FA to be accountable for things that may be ‘wrong but not illegal’, he is so keen that the corporate press should not be.
- Nelson writes: ‘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’ – Wrong.
Neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service acts at the behest of politicians, so (unless Nelson has evidence to suggest otherwise) there could have been no relationship between the wishes of politicians and the scale of the investigation. And since we have still to learn the full scale of criminality – remember, Mirror papers only recently confessed to large-scale phone hacking after years of denial – proportionality would be very hard to determine.
- Nelson writes: ‘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’ – Wrong.
No ‘new crime was drawn out of thin air’. The Bribery Act of 2010 – that is, before the Leveson Inquiry existed – made such activities illegal. It is true, however, that while a number of public servants were jailed for taking bribes under older legislation those who paid them were not convicted under the same old laws. And we have never been told how far newspaper managements encouraged the paying of bribes.
- Nelson writes: ‘The Leveson Inquiry purported to look at the excessive power of the press, but in fact came at a time of great press weakness’ – Wrong.
This is laughable, especially in the week when we learn that Theresa May has been quietly paying homage to Rupert Murdoch, but the myth of the-corporate-press-as-victim is as old as it is self-serving. Nelson rests his case entirely on falling circulations, and they are indeed falling, but he is drawing a veil over much else. Look at what Leveson exposed about the influence of newspapers, and in particular the Murdoch management, over both politicians and the police. For example, Andy Coulson was in 10 Downing Street, the Met was lending Rebekah Brooks horses and Murdoch’s people were in almost hourly contact with the Culture Secretary’s adviser. Nelson is also hoping that we don’t remember – to take an example from this past summer – the acknowledged vital importance of Murdoch and the Mail in the selection of our prime minister.
- Nelson writes: ‘Britain now has perhaps the toughest system of self-regulation in the Western world . . .’ Wrong.
And again laughable. This so-called regulator, IPSO, recently imposed what is in practice the heaviest sanction in its armoury on the Sun newspaper, for its misleading headline ‘Queen backs Brexit’. The editor of the Sun promptly went on national radio to declare that IPSO’s actions made no difference – if the same thing happened again, he said, he would behave in exactly the same way. IPSO talks tough but it is a puppet and the big papers know they are free to ignore it just as they did its discredited predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission.
- Nelson writes: ‘The Daily Telegraph’s investigation into football greed goes far beyond one man. It’s about the moral corruption in a whole industry . . .’ Hypocrisy again.
Nick Davies’s investigation into wrongdoing by national newspapers went far beyond one rogue reporter. It was about moral corruption in a whole industry. After national newspapers failed in their shameful attempts to cover up what had happened we had a formal, legal public inquiry. The judge’s eventual findings were endorsed by a panel of assessors who included senior journalists (one of them an ex-Telegraph man) and the director of Liberty. Every party in Parliament voted for those recommendations, but still the corporate press has spent millions and used all its covert power in the attempt to obstruct and evade them.
Fraser Nelson claims to be outraged by moral corruption in football, but when somebody actually does something about moral corruption in his own industry he would rather publish self-serving, inaccurate and hypocritical things about it.