The Daily Mail this week accused Hacked Off, the Media Standards Trust and Sir David Bell of reducing the late Lord McAlpine to a state of misery in the final year of his life, and insinuated that all three contributed to causing his death.
It made this charge, not merely on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, but in defiance of the evidence. Such casual disregard for facts and such brazen hypocrisy are familiar in the Mail, and they might be funny if they did not routinely cause harm to so many ordinary people.
It’s just over a year since a BBC programme wrongly suggested that a senior Tory peer had been a child abuser and the former director of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism publicly (and again wrongly) said McAlpine was that peer.
This was a very bad mistake by both the BBC and the Bureau’s director. Lord McAlpine’s name was cleared entirely, though no doubt the affair caused him great distress.
‘Those responsible,’ declared the Mail in a leading article this week, ‘should hang their heads in shame.’ Correct, and those who were actually responsible did so: both the BBC and the Bureau conducted inquiries and the heads of both organisations rolled.
(It is worth noting here that the Mail does not believe that it should be accountable for its own outrages in a similar way. Nothing comparable happened at the Mail after the paper implied – wrongly – that Robert Murat was a murderer. Or after it did the same to the McCanns. Or after it did the same to Christopher Jefferies.)
Whom does the Mail blame in the McAlpine affair? First in the queue, it says, is ‘the self-styled “Bureau of Investigative Journalism” – closely linked to the Media Standards Trust and anti-Press lobby group Hacked Off’.
Let us be clear. Neither the Media Standards Trust nor Hacked Off ever made any suggestion, implicit or otherwise, about the conduct of Lord McAlpine, yet the Mail is happy to insinuate that they share responsibility for the man’s death.
As for close links, although the Bureau is an admirable and innovative organisation which conducts high-quality investigative journalism in the public interest, neither the Media Standards Trust nor Hacked Off is able to claim ‘close links‘ with it.
For the Mail, however, there is a close link. Here it is:
‘It’s worth noting that Sir David Bell, assessor to the Leveson Inquiry on newspaper ethics and ardent campaigner for state regulation of the Press, is both a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and co-founder of the Media Standards Trust, which spawned Hacked Off.’
A little background. Sir David Bell is such a hate figure to the Mail that it once devoted 12 pages of a single edition to attacking him, and failed to land a single blow. The truth, as bemused onlookers noted, is that Bell is a classic do-gooder.
He is a retired Financial Times boss who, besides having done duty on the Leveson Inquiry (for which he did not put himself forward, but was chosen by the Prime Minister), sits on boards of a number of bodies including the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and the London Transport Museum. The idea – which the Mail apparently believes – that Bell is a kind of James Bond villain at the centre of a vast conspiracy, is simply laughable.
Nor, for that matter, is there any truth in the claim that Bell is ‘an ardent campaigner for state regulation of the Press’. He does not seek state regulation, any more than Hacked Off is ‘anti-Press’. Wanting newspapers to be accountable when they cause people unjustifiable harm is not the same as hating them or seeking state regulation.
In its leading article the Mail insinuated that Sir David Bell had deliberately plotted the attack on McAlpine. Of course even the Mail knows this is preposterous, so the slur was presented in the form of a question:
‘Was this mendacious hatchet job [on McAlpine] his [Bell’s] idea of setting new journalistic standards?’
Another reality check. Bell did not make the programme about child abuse in Wales nor did he know it was being made. Nor was it he who made the incorrect connection with McAlpine. Nor, when the BBC investigated the affair, did it blame the Bureau for what had happened.
Sir David Bell did absolutely nothing wrong. A mistake was made in an organisation of which he is a trustee and at which, with the involvement of the trustees, entirely proportionate and appropriate action was taken.
The Daily Mail has no evidence to show that there is even the slightest ground for suspicion against him. And in the absence of such evidence it resorts to a smear.
What lies behind this, of course, is hatred. The Mail hates anyone and any group that suggests it should be accountable for its lying and bullying, and as this leading article shows it will seize the flimsiest excuse to smear them. No half-way responsible journalist – no responsible citizen of any kind – would write this stuff.
By the way, the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, chairs the committee of editors that writes thecode of practice for journalists used by the Press Complaints Commission, a code that tells journalists they should be truthful and fair. The Mail, it will be no surprise, breaches that code routinely.
Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off