The first theme in the press campaign against the Guardian by and on behalf of the Government concerns pure and simple payback for the Guardian’s phone-hacking revelations and the resultant Leveson inquiry.
An early example occurs in a Mail article by Stephen Glover on 21 August 2013, headed ‘That Murky Arrest Troubles Me. But the Guardian’s in Murky Waters Where Those Who Love Their Country Should not Venture’. It concludes thus:
I also can’t help wondering whether the officers didn’t feel emboldened to throw their weight about partly in consequence of the Leveson Report, which has virtually severed relations between journalists and the police. The Guardian, of course, is almost single-handedly responsible for Leveson because of its later debunked allegation that the News of the World deleted the voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Nor can I help pointing out the newspaper that has shed copious tears for Mr Miranda, held for nine hours, had no such concerns over the interrogation of dozens of red-top journalists. Some were arrested at dawn in front of their families, deprived of their computers for months and released on bail. Charges won’t be brought against some of them. Others will end up in court. But even the most culpable among them never attempted to damage their country. With friends like Edward Snowden, and employees such as Glenn Greenwald, that is what the Guardian is in danger of doing.
Two days later, a Mail editorial entitled ‘Whiff of Hypocrisy?’ argued that ‘press freedom is an essential right in any democratic society, but along with rights come responsibilities. The Guardian continues to be vociferous in its demands for police to pursue tabloid journalists suspected of acting illegally. Is the paper so arrogant and hypocritical as to believe it is itself above the law?’
The following day the same line was taken by the Spectator in an article headed ‘The Guardian Didn’t Care When Murdoch’s Journalists Were Arrested. So Why the Hysteria Now?’ This stated that:
It is good to see the Guardian suddenly rediscover its interest in the sanctity of a free press. Just five months ago, the paper seemed to have given up on the idea, when it backed the statutory regulation of newspapers … When David Cameron’s government proposed to bring back state licensing of the press, this magazine said it would boycott any such regulator no matter what the consequences. We do not remember Mr Rusbridger rushing to support us. He seems to have a rather different test for press freedom: whatever suits his newspaper the best. The Leveson report, and the notion of allowing politicians to set the parameters in which the press can operate, seemed to be quite acceptable to him: after all, it would hurt his rivals the most … Press freedom is indeed under threat in Britain. The Guardian, for all of its proud history, has proven a rather unreliable defender of these freedoms in recent years — especially when it has spotted an opportunity to sock it to Rupert Murdoch.
The theme occurred yet again in an article by Rod Liddle in the Sun, 10 October, which, under the headline ‘Guardian Treason Helping Terrorists’, pointed out that:
This is the newspaper which has encouraged State control of the British Press. A publication which has allied itself with the Hacked Off campaign to restrict the freedom of what we in the Press can and can’t report. It was particularly pious about the handful of cases in which journalists on other papers hacked the phones of members of the public in order to get stories. The phone hacking was unquestionably wrong. But it doesn’t compare to what the Guardian has done.
Louise Mensch took the same line in the paper on 13 October, remarking: ‘You know what’s funny about the Guardian newspaper? They were all for State regulation of the Press. The big cheerleaders for Leveson loved it when the News of the World was closed over illegal hacking. But when they break the law, they screech about Press freedom’.
The ‘argument’ being deployed in pieces such as these is so manifestly self-interested and opportunistic as to be barely worth serious consideration. However, the crucial point that nonetheless needs to be made is that no meaningful comparison can be made between the Guardian’s exposure of forms of state surveillance which should be of concern to every citizen in the land, and the phone-hacking by the News of the World for reasons which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the public interest.
Furthermore, as we have seen, David Miranda has thus far been charged with precisely nothing, whilst many of those accused of phone-hacking have been both arrested and charged, and, in some cases, have already been convicted of criminal offences as clear-cut as they are serious.
‘A Wall of Prejudice’
A second theme broadened out the attack on the Guardian to take in other Tory hate objects, namely the BBC, and, by extension, the ‘liberal-Left’. Entirely unsurprisingly, this was the province of the Mail. It was sparked off by a speech by the new head of MI5, Andrew Parker, which the Mail decided the BBC failed to cover in sufficient detail. Thus, on 9 October, in an editorial headed ‘The Paper that Helps Britain’s Enemies’, it thundered:
It is impossible to imagine a graver charge against a newspaper than that it has given succour to our country’s enemies and endangered all our lives by handing terrorists ‘the gift they need to evade us and strike at will’. Yet so said Andrew Parker, in his first speech as our spy chief, which yesterday was significantly endorsed by No10. So isn’t it staggering that the BBC, after spending all last week trumpeting Ed Miliband’s attack on this paper over our charge that his father’s Marxist views validated one of the most evil regimes in history, could hardly bring itself for much of yesterday to report Mr Parker’s devastating indictment of the Guardian? The problem, and it’s worse under the new director general, is that a wall of prejudice surrounds Broadcasting House – a belief that the Right merits relentless attack, while the BBC’s soulmates on the liberal Left must always be protected.
Exactly the same line was followed in the same day’s paper by Stephen Glover in a column with the laborious headline: ‘Stupendous Arrogance: By Risking Lives, I Say Again, the Guardian is Floundering Far out of its Depth in Realms Where no Newspaper Should Venture’. According to Glover:
The Guardian is being accused of putting at risk not only the lives of agents but also potentially the lives of ordinary British people, whom MI5 will now find it more difficult to protect. Divide the accusations in two, and then halve them again, and they are still mind-boggling. So what is the response? At the time of writing, the all-powerful BBC has only parenthetically mentioned that the newspaper faces very serious charges, and has made the most feeble attempts to hold the paper or its editor, Alan Rusbridger, to account.
This is a version of an argument that is now being put with increasing frequency by the Right, namely that if the BBC doesn’t cover stories which dominate the press agenda on a particular morning then this is sure-fire proof of the BBC’s fabled ‘Left-wing bias’. An alternative explanation, of course, is that many stories which appear in most national dailies are stories only by the very peculiar standards of Britain’s predominantly hard-Right press, and are frequently too distorted and inaccurate to be worthy of inclusion on the news agenda of a public service broadcaster.
It has long been obvious that Britain’s ultra-Conservative newspapers will not rest content until the broadcast news agenda is skewed as far to the Right as is their own. If some semblance of political diversity is to be preserved in the British media, the BBC is going to have resist this pressure with every fibre of its being – which entails showing a very great deal more determination than it has done to date.
Thus far, I have quoted only from opinion columns of one kind or another, and a possible retort could be that as long as newspapers separate out fact from comment, news from views, then they should be free to be as partisan as they wish. However, most of the ‘news’ stories about the Guardian and Snowden in the Sun, Mail and (to a slightly lesser extent) Telegraph have been every bit as biased as their op-ed pieces, and I will attempt to illustrate this by reference to my third, and over-arching, theme, namely national security, which will be considered in Part 3 of this post.
Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media in the School of Arts at Brunel University, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review. His most recent book is the edited collection The Media and Public Shaming (I.B. Tauris, 2013).
This is the second part of an edited extract of a paper which appeared in Ethical Space, Vol.11, Nos. 1-2, 2014, and is reproduced with permission and thanks.
Part One was published on 3 May 2014. The final, concluding, part will be published later this week.