Just as politicians say that terrorist attacks won’t change the way we go about our business – they do – so the media will always allow a major bombing to shift its agenda. That is not a criticism. An outrage of the kind we saw in Moscow yesterday is clearly genuinely newsworthy, and a reminder that for more extreme terror groups, any high profile target will do, the bigger and deadlier the better.
It meant that a number of very high profile stories suddenly slipped down the agenda, no doubt to the relief of, among others…
– David Cameron, George Osborne and Vince Cable following outgoing CBI boss Richard Lambert’s rather splendid denunciation of the Tory government’s non-growth strategy.
– Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives, with the phone-hacking scandal stench growing, and with the Crown Prosecution Service now taking a fresh and tougher look at investigations woefully mishandled by the police.
– And Sky Sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys whose sexist comments about a linesman led to their suspension.
An explanation if I may about my tweet yesterday on the last of these, in which I wondered if Andy Gray’s pursuit of the News of the World – he is taking them to court for phone-hacking- may have been a factor in Sky’s actions against him. I was not defending the sexist comments. Far from it. It is one thing to say a lineswoman made a wrong call (which the lineswoman in question, Sian Massey, did not; indeed she gave a very good account of herself). It is another to say women can’t understand the offside rule.
But as the comments were not meant for public consumption, and given how important Gray and Keys are to Sky’s football coverage, I think the Sky of pre-phonehack sensitivities, with Murdoch not in town, might have tried to tough it out with an on air apology and a reprimand.
The Russian bombing led to a Newsnight discussion on phone-hacking being dropped. I had been planning to make the point that in some respects the focus on Andy Coulson had become a sideshow, that this really was a bigger and more serious story about press standards more generally. Where has that useless body the Press Complaints Commission (motto ‘by the press for the press’) been in all this? Nowhere, as ever.
Yesterday someone sent me a couple of links to reports from a less useless body, The Information Commissioner, on the unlawful trade in personal information. You can take a look here and here. The second one – go to page 9 – reveals that when it comes to unlawful information gathering the Mail is way out in front. No wonder they are way out in front, alongside News Corp, in willing this away.
But this cannot now be willed away. Reputable newspapers and journalists have a vested interest in making sure it doesn’t. MPs who have been wary about getting involved need to put aside worries about being targeted themselves and act in the public interest in pursuing the truth on illegal journalistic activity more widely. They are right too to press on Cameron’s poor judgement in becoming socially entwined in what Gordon Brown called ‘the North Oxfordshire set’, and in particular in socialising so closely with James Murdoch shortly after stripping Vince Cable of powers over the BSkyB takeover. The police need to get their act together and rebuild a reputation that has been badly hit. The CPS need to follow through on the changed attitude signalled in some of the papers today.
As for Richard Lambert, he was a fine editor of the FT and an impressive director general of the CBI. Even if the yesterday’s speech was partly about getting himself noticed amid suggestions he may be the next head of the BBC Trust, he was spot on in saying the government obsession with cutting the deficit has blinded them to the need for a strategy for growth. I don’t imagine this was his intention, but he helped open a door for new shadow chancellor Ed Balls, for whom it will now be easier put growth at the centre of the politico-economic stage.
News does work in funny ways sometimes. No pun intended. Well, maybe a bit.