THE SUNDAY ESSAY: Informed speculation as a journalistic weapon.

The Slog asks whether those perverting political, police and judicial independence really deserve the benefit of the doubt

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One of the many dilemmas facing those who support liberal democratic ideals is the ever-present friction between vote-centric politicians on the one hand, and  the independent crime and justice arms of the State on the other.

Ever since they played a decisive role in enforcing new Conservative Trade Union laws in the 1980s, the police have increasingly chosen to see politicians as their masters. As New Labour pc correctness flooded onto the statute books after 1997, so too did the Force align itself with cultural diversity management, rooting out so-called homophobia, and publicising its fight against ‘hate-crime’.

The judiciary also found itself being bullied and sullied during the lead-up to the Iraq War. If the Chilcot Enquiry did nothing else (and it didn’t achieve much) it pointed up how a spin doctor with ambition where his brains should be, and a Prime Minister in search of his legacy, could pervert the course of justice. Justice was almost certainly foiled in relation to Arab arms deals, a potential murder inquiry, and the legality of a war declaration: an Attorney General pinned against the wall by a spin-doctor can hardly think of himself as ‘independent’.

Of late, interference in the work of judges has been taken a step further by David Cameron, a Prime Minister whose understanding of the Constitution makes Alistair Campbell look like Walter Bagehot by comparison. I must confess to having been, for once, speechless when Cameron three weeks ago offered us all his ‘considered’ opinion on judges and privacy laws in the Daily Mail:

‘David Cameron yesterday attacked judges for using European human rights laws to usher in a privacy law by the back door. The Prime Minister said he was ‘uneasy’ about the way the courts are issuing ‘super-injunctions’ to prevent the media reporting allegations about the rich and famous. Mr Cameron said it should be up to Parliament, not unelected judges, to decide on the balance between privacy and freedom of the press.’

Apart from the fact that judicial precedent is the very cornerstone of deciding the balance or otherwise of the law in practice (frequently highlighting the sloppy incompetence of legislators) the truly disturbing thing about the PM’s pronouncement was that he could be argued to have a very clear interest in press ‘freedoms’ – that is, his close and at times inexcusable relationship with the senior management of Rupert Murdoch’s News International.

As a man who is at heart a tabloid muck-raker, Murdoch has the most to gain from an end to super-injunctions. We  would all gain from that of course (gagging orders are little better than the Bourbons’ widely used lettres de cachet) but the plain fact is that super-injunctions tend to be issued on behalf of wayward celebrities, and finding out what they’re up to is the bedrock of Newscorp’s business. Rupert Murdoch cares nothing for personal liberty and privacy – Hackgate has proved that beyond reasonable doubt: what he wants is license to make the genuinely private public – as part of his endless pursuit of money….and the powerful influence that comes with it.

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Over the last 25 years, what used to be the junior (or ‘Fourth’) Estate – the media – have arguably leapt over both police and judiciary to forge a disturbingly direct relationship with our sovereign legislature. I think it is  fair to say that in 2011, most leading politicians care only for press opinion rather than public opinion. Holding the electorate in very low esteem, their assumption is that there can be no public opinion without the media moguls moulding it.

This incestuous and mutually dependent relationship results in the Westminster Bubble talking to the Fleet Street/Medialand Bubble; and if the latter could claim to ‘mould’ public opinion about TV game shows and professional soccer love-rats, it is frequently surprised by the citizen’s inconvenient unwillingness to be a receptacle for some shadowy billionaire’s opinion about the big issues.

There are myriad examples of this. The London media’s views at various times on Polish immigrants, race issues, EU membership, AV, the Coalition, David Laws, Vince Cable, the NHS and the economic situation have been shown to be hopelessly out of touch with what decent people feel. But this doesn’t alter the fact that governments today – and especially this one – care only about how things will play in the media, not the Medway towns.

The process has been accelerated by the arrival of first 24/7 television news, and then digital on-the move news access. Not only has this eroded the time – and reduced the money – available for calm news analysis and investigation, it has also given the political class an unparalleled, privileged ability to sound-bite their way into the headlines and out of trouble.

Fairly obviously, members of that media set potentially offer politicians four things: coverage biased in their favour, censorship of stories harmful to them, inside information on beartraps lying in wait for them, and overt Party support in terms of money and/or editorial endorsement. In return, media moguls want access to power – from a combination of egoistic and commercial motives.

This risk is bad enough; but when a very powerful news organisation also has an unhealthily close (perhaps even corrupt) relationship with senior police officers, has former senior employees working closely with the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister, and employs senior editorial staff enjoying close friendships with that Prime Minister, then any citizenry even half-awake ought to be very wary indeed.

But in Britain today, we have a further cause for grave concern. A world-respected news organisation (the BBC) that is State supported – but not State controlled – now faces a stand-up market share battle with that very same mogul-owned media group. This is an organisation that wants to increase its chances of dominance by buying out a satellite group of which it is already a shareholder….and enthusiastically endorsed the Prime Minister when he was himself the Leader of the Opposition.

Given that by now familiar context, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Government approval of Newscorp’s bid for BSkyB is nothing more or less than ‘payback time’ for Rupert Murdoch. And it is clear to fair observers, having looked at the veritable mountain range of evidence from around the globe, that any objective Culture Minister would not touch Newscorp with a thirty-foot pole – let alone give this family-controlled news-mincer and purveyor of tit-displaying rags his blessing.

Nor is there any lack of evidence from the home market of the organisation’s malign effect on our own culture. Murdoch staff have, variously, destroyed the competitive and financial balance of the national sport, taken cruel and salacious elements in the downmarket press to new heights of mindless prurience, made a great many formerly free-to-air events available only by pay-per-view, single-handedly created and then expanded the harassment of private citizens both outside and inside their own homes, paid police officers for information, used criminal means to obtain information about celebrities, lied to various judges in relation to the phone-hacking scandal, lied to the victims of it, somehow used their influence with the Metropolitan Police to persuade them to lie about the seriousness of it, hacked the mobile phones and messaging services of at least 300 people in public life, and illegally monitored the telephonic private conversations and texts of the Head of State’s family, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, scores of people in the Legislature, members of the intelligence services, senior sporting figures, senior media figures, and a previous Minister of Culture.

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For all Margaret Thatcher quite justifiably felt that, by 1975, the power of undemocratic Trade Unions made them an excellent candidate for cutting down to size, their influence over the Labour Government of the time was tangential compared to the unelected and flagrantly wielded power of today’s banking community and media set. Both of them are largely deregulated. This site has consistently opined for some six years now that giving such a degree of license to banks is a bit like letting Halal butchers do brain surgery on humans. But the media are rightly felt to be a far more difficult case in point.

My own former profession of advertising – an integral part of what the media presents to the public – is massively regulated. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and other bodies pre-approving scripts for television commercials demand (and get) full evidential back-up for any claim made in a UK advertisement. In addition, regulatory bodies can order a campaign to be taken off air, out of newspapers, or down from posters if enough consumers complain variously about misleading claims or offensive content. None of this, of course, stops sniffy hacks referring to us as ‘the hidden persuaders’, constantly ‘selling people things they don’t need’. God help us all from people who want to tell us what we need: and God save us from hypocrites who live off advertising income, while reserving the right to be condescending and accusatory about those crafting the ads.

Advertising claims have to be palpably ‘true’, and this is as it should be. In the wider world of reporting and analysing news, truth is inevitably a matter of opinion and perspective: one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter. But the idea of press freedom comes badly unstuck when tabloid gargoyles who care nothing for freedom, accuracy, society, taste or privacy have no genuine investigatory aim at  all. They are in fact far more likely to censor a truth they don’t like, caring only to maximise sales on the back of that day’s 3-in-a-bed romp. In that bed-ridden menage a trois, there is not even a feeble case for the plea of  ‘in the public interest’. This is public interest as expressed through the medium of Christians, gladiators, mad bulls and lions in the Colisseum.

All of which makes me ask a simple question: if lowlife like the worst of those on the good ship Newscorp won’t regulate themselves, why shouldn’t others (for example, me) have the right to speculate about what such evidence as we have to hand might mean? After all, I have no desire to accuse in a sloppy manner – like, for instance, both the Sun and Mirror did in relation to the guilt or otherwise of Chris Jefferies during the Joanna Yeates murder inquiry. All I wish to do is share my informed ponderings with Sloggers everywhere.

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Speculation is entirely justified in journalism when a series of facts in a row seem to point to a conclusion. The person or thing which is the subject of such an array of facts (and conjecture on the basis of them) has every right in my book to be given the chance to contribute to what the journalist eventually writes. But if the writer tries to contact that person (or representatives thereof) several times and gets no response…..well then, the subject must take the consequences.

There are, literally, thousands of examples of this. If a private detective has a book full of telephone numbers, and those numbers include celebrities he or she hacked before, the chances are the other numbers were in there for the same purpose. If a former Chancellor tells the Chilcot committee that he kept on increasing the army budget – but the Ministry of Defence figures show he did no such thing – the chances are that man is a liar. If a police force keeps on insisting an innocent man they’ve killed is a terrorist when they know he isn’t, then the chances are it wasn’t an innocent mistake.

Tomorrow, The Slog will reveal just such an instance. A case history – explosive in its potential for grave media, political, police and judicial consequences – in which one person seems to keep on colliding with a chain of events, as a result of which that person has benefited enormously. A media representative who has worked and still works on behalf of the powerful and famous. A news management expert at the centre of not one but two of the most infamous media stories of recent years. And a manipulator who, many former colleagues maintain, cannot be trusted.

There are those who would say that a culture in which such a person thrives is a sick culture. Judge for yourselves – in tomorrow’s Slog.