More Hutton fallout

More Hutton fallout

Two interesting articles today. A terrific polemic by Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard, and not one of nature’s left-wingers. Here’s part of what he has to say:

The longer I think about Hutton, the angrier I get. It is hard to dissent from his conclusions about the BBC’s failures. Yet the damage done by his grotesquely lopsided report vastly outweighs the gravity of the offence. The corporation, guilty of lapses of journalistic judgment, has been treated as if its reporter had committed perjury in a court of law. Lord Hutton seems to expect from working journalists the standards of proof he would demand from witnesses on oath.

Lord Hutton seems unable to grasp a simple truth: all journalism is conducted against a background of official obfuscation and deceit, which does much to explain our blunders and omissions. It seems remarkable not how much journalists get wrong – a great deal – but that we are able to retrieve from the Whitehall swamp fragments of truth, and to present the waterlogged and bedraggled exhibits to readers and listeners.

I say this with regret. I am more instinctively supportive of institutions, less iconoclastic, than most of the people who write for the Guardian, never mind read it. I am a small “c” conservative, who started out as a newspaper editor 18 years ago much influenced by a remark Robin Day once made to me: “Even when I am giving politicians a hard time on camera,” he said, “I try to remember that they are trying to do something very difficult – govern the country.”

Yet over the years that followed, I came to believe that for working journalists the late Nicholas Tomalin’s words, offered before I took off for Vietnam for the first time back in 1970, are more relevant: “they lie”, he said. “Never forget that they lie, they lie, they lie.”

The strangest thing about Hutton’s mindset, as Max observes, is his quaint idea of how political journalism is conducted in the UK. His model seems to be this: the journalist asks the government spokesman a question; the spokesman answers; the journalist writes down the answer; and the newspaper prints it. The idea that an official source might not be truthful never crosses old Hutton’s mind. Hastings goes on to cite two cases where prominent (named) New Labour politicians told him outright lies. And, in another interesting article, lawyer Anthony Lester ponders the implications of Hutton’s proposed code of conduct for the media. Quote:

“The report found David Kelly guilty of acting in breach of the civil service code in talking to Gilligan without authority. It did not consider whether Kelly might have had a public interest Spycatcher defence as a whistleblower. Hutton stated, as a general principle, that ‘accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media’, without referring to the dangers inherent in self-censorship and prior restraint, or to the constitutional right to free speech now protected by the Human Rights Act against unnecessary interference or restriction – especially on matters of political expression. The report does not consider (as a libel jury would have done) whether, despite sloppy journalism, weak editorial supervision and poor management, it was still in the public interest for the BBC to broadcast the fact that a senior and well-informed public officer had made serious accusations about the way in which the dossier had been compiled.

Those newspapers that have gleefully attacked the BBC should consider the dangers to them and their readers of acquiescing in this approach. As for the BBC, we must hope that its new chairman and director general will be chosen without government influence, that the systemic failures will be corrected but not over-corrected, and that the public’s right to know will not be chilled by self-censorship or government interference as a result of the extraordinary and costly procedure that the government invented to vindicate its reputation.”