Tuesday, January 23, 2007 

Somewhere, a village is missing its idiot.

They say that Paul Dacre doesn't often give speeches in public. Whether this is down to the fact that he can't help swearing like Jade Goody combined with a drunken sailor, notorious to his own staff for his use of "cunt" twice in one sentence, or the fact that judging by his Cudlipp lecture last night, he just doesn't haven't have anything much of interest to say, is hard to tell. Somehow, I think it's the latter.

Nevertheless, he's given this year's Hugh Cudlipp lecture (PDF). And across Britain, every right-winger who loathes the BBC for daring to be as impartial as humanly possible rejoices.

After 4 pages worth of teary-eyed, "good ol' days" crap, Dacre finally starts to get to his point:

Well, I’m sorry to piss on their parade, but, with the honourable exception of the Telegraph, which, of course, is the only right-wing “quality” - The Guardian, The Independent and The Times are all losing money.

Such papers are effectively being subsidised.
So when The Times’s Ms Sieghart, the very embodiment of modern free-thinking women, holds forth on feminism, she does so courtesy of the topless girls in the still vastly profitable Sun.

Equally, when The Guardian’s Mr Kettle vents his spleen on the excesses of the free market he does so courtesy of the fat profits made by that fine example of the free market – The Guardian-owned Auto Trader.

Well thanks for telling us something we didn't already know. The very nature of liberalism often means that those who claim to be and practice its values are horrible hypocrites: I know I am. Sieghart also isn't being subsidised just by the Sun; the rest of Murdoch's vast empire is also paying for her. Oh, and describing her sneeringly as the "embodiment of modern free-thinking women" obviously doesn't prove the Mail editor's oft-accused penchant for misogyny, not one bit. Speaking of which, didn't the Mail at the beginning of the year also say that the excesses of the free market were promoting the "politics of envy"? Yep, it certainly did. Not that Mr Dacre is one to comment. His salary and benefits last year rose, according to Private Eye, from £997,000 to £1.23 million. By comparison, the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, earned £312,000 (as well as taking home a bonus of £175,000), while the BBC Director General, Mark Thompson, earned £459,000.

And while The Guardian’s Scott Trust is a magnificent construct that allows some gloriously elevated journalism – and praise be to God for that, say I, – let’s not beat about the bush: subsidised papers are, by definition, unable to survive in a free market. Their journalism and values – invariably liberal, metropolitan and politically correct, and I include the pinkish Times here, - don’t connect with sufficient readers to be commercially viable.

Does Dacre have a point here? Maybe, but only maybe. Taking the circulation of all the papers Dacre mentions together based on the December ABCs, they add up to 1,240,168, more than 300,000 more copies than the profit-making Daily Telegraph sold, and 80,000 of those were at a discounted bulk price.

In other words, there quite clearly is a market for just the journalism and values which Dacre sniffs about. In a way, Dacre has something of a point. The advent of the internet especially has meant that having two centre-left "quality" papers is perhaps not going to be viable for too much longer; the Independent will probably eventually shift entirely online, go free or fold. Its owner, Tony O'Reilly, may pull the plug one day. The way the Guardian especially has taken to the online challenge, the way it's managed to engage readers, especially from America, means that it isn't going anywhere any time soon, and the Times will never fold while Murdoch continues to rampage across the globe. Additionally, the Guardian website turned in a profit last year, and it's by far the most popular British newspaper site. How is that not success?

Ah, say the bien pensants, but such papers are hugely concerned for the common good. But there is a rather unedifying contradiction here. For the Subsidariat, as I shall dub them, are actually rather disdainful of common man, contemptuous even, of the papers that make profits by appealing to and connecting with millions of ordinary men and women.

How often do you read in the Subsidariat, or hear on Newsnight, contemptuous references to the tabloid press as if it was some disembodied monster rather than the very embodiment of the views of the great majority of the British people.

Dacre here is confusing the paper people buy with the views they hold. Do all 800,000 Express readers honestly believe that Princess Diana was murdered? I somehow doubt it. As for contemptuous references to it, what do the tabloids expect when it's shown how by opinion poll how little tabloid journalists are trusted (9% compared to a narrow majority who trust TV news journalists), and what lengths they go to gain their "exclusives", not to mention their continuing reliance on paparazzi. While the furore over Kate Middleton has now died down somewhat, yesterday numerous papers printed photographs of Prince Harry's girlfriend, for err, wearing a dress similar to that which Ms Middleton had wore. When they're invading the privacy of the population for reasons far from the public interest, why are they so surprised think that the "Subsidariat" view the tabloids with contempt? They're bringing their own profession into disrepute.

Fair enough, you might say. The tabloid press – and it’s getting confusing here,because The Times and The Independent are, of course, tabloids now – is big enough to look after itself.

Except I don’t think it is fair because such arguments ignore the ever burgeoning growth of the most powerful media organisation in the world. I refer, of course, to the hugely subsidised BBC.

Oh, you're fucking kidding me. Is this meant to be satire? How on earth does the BBC in any way compare to the global behemoth which is News Corporation? It doesn't. As much as you may dislike the BBC Dacre, this is just plain bollocks.

Now before the liberal commentators reach for their vitriol – and, my goodness, how they demonise anyone who disagrees with them – let me say that I would die in a ditch defending the BBC as a great civilising force. I, for one, would pay the licence fee just for Radio 4.

As opposed to the tabloids, who just demonise those who can't fight back. Colin Stagg, anyone? Asylum seekers? Immigrants? Those accused of terrorism? By coincidence, today Mail and Express journalists were giving evidence to the joint committee of human rights, and a Guardian hack took the opportunity to show that they're misleading their readers into believing Britain has a far higher share of immigrants than it actually does have - 21% and 19%, compared to the actual total, which is 7% of the population. Also Mr Dacre, you would pay the licence fee alone for Radio 4, right? Doesn't Radio 4, with its high-brow Today programme, worthy dramas and otherwise exemplify the very things you hate about the BBC? Doesn't this make you too a hypocrite?

But as George Orwell said “to see what is in front of one’s nose requires constant struggle”. And what is in front of one’s nose is that the BBC, a behemoth that bestrides Britain is, as Cudlipp might have put it, TOO BLOODY BIG, TOO BLOODY PERVASIVE AND TOO BLOODY POWERFUL.

Firstly, consider the sheer vast size of the Corporation which is, despite its bleating about being underfunded, a conglomerate that employs 26,000 people, has a vast £3.2bn budget, and thinks nothing of paying £18m to a chat show host.

And so on it begins, a rant against the BBC and everything it does everywhere, complaining about how the BBC haven't gone after New Labour scandals, which is nonsense (the organisation quickly backtracked from offering £100 to those who helped break exclusives on the loans for peerages scandal - which the Sun jumped on - the BBC can't win whatever it does), how it's destroyed the Tory party (it didn't - the Tory party and the electorate destroyed the Tory party) mostly backed up by no evidence whatsoever, except than by Dacre's invective. About the only example given is that one journalist had his revelation that the HIV rates were being brought up by African migrants being diagnosed once they had reached Britain cut at the last minute. If so, it's appalling, but doesn't by any definition translate to such censorship being overwhelming throughout the organisation. For instance, take the BBC's recent rather sensationalist investigation into translation services - natural Daily Mail territory. Maybe that's why Dacre's really pissed off - they're increasingly stealing his thunder.

Freedom of Information enquiries tell us, and we should be very unsurprised here, that the BBC Newsroom has more copies of the statist Guardian delivered than any other paper and that 90% of the Corporation’s job ads are placed with that paper.

Thus are the values of a subsidised newspaper that sells 380,000 copies embraced by an organisation that reaches into virtually every home in Britain.

Or maybe it's that the Guardian has by far the most respected media coverage, and is as a result the best place to advertise. Maybe the fact that a broadsheet is the most delivered has something to do with the fact that the tabloids increasingly have less and less "news" and more and more garbage? Dacre also doesn't let us know exactly how many more copies of the Grauniad are delivered, the margin is probably tiny.

But then, the BBC is consumed by the kind of political correctness that is actually patronisingly contemptuous of what it describes as ordinary people. Having started as an admirable philosophy of tolerance, that political correctness has become an intolerant creed enabling a self-appointed elite to impose its minority values on the great majority. Anything popular is dismissed as being populist which is sneering shorthand for being of the lowest possible taste.

Indeed. As "political correctness" swept the tabloids other than the Daily Mail last week, all condemnatory over the Big Brother race row, the Mail instead belittled the whole thing, advising viewers to switch off. When the BBC showed "Jerry Springer The Opera", the advice from the Mail certainly wasn't to switch off.

This, I would argue, is perverting political discourse and disenfranchising countless millions who don’t subscribe to the BBC’s world view. Told repeatedly that their opinions are not considered respectable or legitimate these people are disconnecting – one of the reasons, I would suggest, for the current apathy over politics.

Or it could be that the politicians themselves are now so indulgent of a minority - which, shock - is the same lower middle class that Dacre so eulogises and which the BBC apparently hates, also known as the "aspirational", that politics has become meaningless. Of course, tabloid attacks on politicians, regardless of allegiance have also had no role in undermining faith in those who govern us, oh no.

How instructive to compare all this with what is happening in America. There, the liberal smugness of a terminally worthy, monopolistic press has, together with deregulation, triggered both the explosive growth of right-wing radio broadcasting that now dominates the airwaves and the extraordinary rise of Murdoch’s rightwing Fox TV News service.

Yep, and still the far-right decries the American press as being liberally biased, much like Dacre and others decry the BBC for being just the same. That the American press were so cowed in the aftermath of September the 11th, so loath to criticise anything the Bush administration pushed through for fear of being labelled anti-American and unpatriotic that the Iraq disaster took place, which is still being praised to the rafters by the very right-wingers which Dacre now mentions doesn't undermine his argument one bit. Nope.

And here I wish to digress for a moment and address an issue that should deeply worry all those who believe in press freedom: Britain’s judges –whose dislike of much of the media should not be underestimated – are itching to bring in a Privacy Law by the back door.

Under the Human Rights Act we are witnessing the development, at a frightening pace, of an aggressive judge-made privacy law over which Parliament has no control.

All then becomes clear. The very newspaper which promised after the death of Diana to stop buying any photographs by paparazzi and kept said promise for about 5 minutes, now continues to want to keep splashing on snatched shots of minor celebrities getting out of their cars. There is a legitimate concern that a privacy law will be introduced through the back-door by judges - who incidentally are trusted by 81% of the population, a mere 9 times more than tabloid journalists - and that it could have a chilling effect on press freedom, but this will be a result of the pathetic celebrity worship which the same tabloids indulge in it if it happens, rather than legitimate investigations into politicians. The tabloids will only have themselves to blame if it does.

Indeed, had you told me 36 years ago that a cuckolded husband didn’t have the right to speak about his wife’s adultery, that a paper would be banned from referring to royal indiscretions contained in a round-robin journal distributed to scores of people and that the media cannot reveal the identity of a Labour ex-Education Minister who sends her child to private school – three issues that have come up recently on the privacy front - I would have simply disbelieved you.

I don't know about the first example, and can't say I could give a shit if I did. The second is referring to Prince Charles's journal, which was printed by the Mail on Sunday in part, before he then stopped them from revealing it in full, but not before his amazing opinion that the Chinese who took part in the handover of Hong Kong were "appalling old waxworks" was made public. The third is err, about Ruth Kelly, who was named and seems likely to fail in her attempts to get the PCC to intervene. The Mirror was just more forthright in naming her than the Hatemail on Sunday was.

Such restrictions are not conducive to producing adventurous journalism but, the judges, I fear, are all part of a movement by a liberal establishment to curb what they see as the excesses of the press.

Yes, of course they are dear. It's all one big conspiracy, which doesn't involve judges having to interpret the law as they see it one iota. Also, who could blame them if they actually were when the Sun "named and shamed" and attacked them last year for simply handing down sentences under the government's own guidelines?

Such papers need to be sensational, irreverent, gossipy, interested in celebrities and human relationships and, above all, brilliantly entertaining sugar coated pills if they are to attract huge circulations and devote considerable space to intelligent, thought-provoking journalism, analysis and comment on important issues.

Or they could, as Lord Northcliffe suggested, just provide their own little "Daily Hate", which the Mail definitely does.

Moving on:

The bitter irony, of course, is that when, for once, the BBC was proactive in its journalism and did stand up to the Labour Party by breaking a genuine story, the Corporation and its craven governors all but imploded under pressure from a rabid Campbell.

And what is interesting is that this contrasted with the ruthless support for the Iraq war that Rupert Murdoch imposed on his papers and their equally ruthless suppression of any criticism of the invasion whether it involved the Attorney General’s malfeasance, virtually ignored in The Times, or Dr Kelly, all but hung drawn and quartered by The Sun.

Indeed, I would suggest that the intimacy and power-brokering between these two papers and No 10 and the question whether Mr Blair would have got away with his falsehoods and misjudgements over Iraq – indeed, whether Britain would have gone to war at all - without the support of the Murdoch empire, is a brilliant doctoral thesis for some future media studies student.

It is a good question, and this is the only part of Dacre's entire lecture which is entirely and documentarily true, yet even this is tempered more by the Mail's hatred of Labour more than it is of support for the BBC's journalism. As soon as the Hutton whitewash passed, the Mail was back to attacking the BBC in every way.


And what’s in front of one’s nose is that Britain needs greater freedom, plurality and diversity in its media.

All of which is provided in your super-soaraway Daily Mail! Oh, wait...

Update: Today's Grauniad published an edited version of Dacre's rant on its comment pages, sans most of the bits about the Groan itself. Here's a question worth putting to Dacre and the Daily Mail as a whole: would it give over comment space to Alan Rusbridger, ranting about Sky and the tabloids? Somehow I doubt it. Additionally, the piece is also up on CiF, where the debate has been as usual, reasonably fierce. CiF, unlike the Mail's site, doesn't moderate comments before they're posted, and it also doesn't censor comments which are highly critical of the newspaper. The Mail, on the other hand, heavily filters comments on its reports and comment pieces, generally only letting a token objection or disagreement with the article be given space alongside the adulatory masses and disgusteds of Tonbridge Wells. The difference between the politically correct liberals and the right-wingers which Dacre so loves is that we're not afraid to debate and do so without having to resort to the kind of news-management which would be more at home in Downing Street than in Islington.

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