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Context is everything. If an article appears attacking the BBC in a right-wing paper, it often comes with an agenda: the author doesn’t really want the corporation around at all. He or she would like a media settlement more like America’s, where there is no public service broadcaster equivalent. Nothing would please him more than to see a British version of Fox News, slightly adapted to our norms, ruling the media roost while the Guardian simultaneously goes out of business.
For what it’s worth, this isn’t my view. I confess to having a soft spot for the Guardian, perhaps because it once paid me for six months’ worth of columns without actually asking me to write anything. Maybe the arrangement was a model for how it thinks the economy should be run. Turning to the BBC, I value its part in our social ecology. Yes, the licence fee is no longer justifiable, if it ever was. Yes, a lot of its coverage lacks imagination: on, say, abortion, climate change, aid, the NHS or America, it finds it very hard to get inside the heads of those who think differently. It will be interesting to see whether its election night coverage of this week’s Presidential election shows any understanding of the changes in America that have propelled Donald Trump to the very gate of the White House.
And, yes, being a public service broadcaster gives it a public sector mentality, which is not altogether a good thing. But my view of the BBC is none the less much the same as Theresa May’s of taxation, as outlined at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. The corporation is part of the price we pay for living in a civilised society. There is more to “Auntie” – as no-one in real life calls the BBC – than Today. It is worth putting up with Newsnight to get War and Peace. You may well find this take a bit p
Mention of a civilised society brings me to the Daily Mail. It would not be my first Fleet Street read of choice each morning. This is because it is bad for my blood pressure, at that time of day, to be worked up into a state of self-righteous fury. It is none the less my earliest port of call, because it will have any important story covered. It is brilliantly edited and sub-edited. Every page has pace and variety. Each headline hits home. Everyone who works there seems to know, as Topol put it in Fiddler on the Roof, “who he is and what God expects him to do” – the latter, in this case, being the editor, Paul Dacre. He ensures that everything in it coheres in a worldview that is unconservative only in the sense of being angry all the time. For all the criticism of it, it scored better on complaints with the Press Complaints Commission than some of its rivals, despite the venom with which it sometimes operates.
Such as last week – when it sank its teeth into three High Court judges, in the wake of their verdict in the Brexit appeal case, labelling them “enemies of the people”. This was “an attack on the rule of law”, no less, according to “Schona Jolly, a human rights and equalities barrister from Cloisters Chambers”. A Liberal Democrat MP (yes, there are still one or two) said that the paper was “attacking the judiciary in a way that would be approved by Putin or Mugabe”. No less magisterial a figure than the Lord Chancellor herself, Elizabeth Truss, was hauled into the row. Asked to say something, she very sensibly said nothing very much – for which she was promptly assailed by the Bar Council for not going far enough: “as Lord Chancellor, it falls within her role to uphold the rule of law.”
Was the Mail‘s headline inflammatory? Perhaps, given the context of Jo Cox’s horrible murder. But then again, Britain will be a less liberal country if free speech, already trammelled about in law, is to be curtailed further because a madman killed an MP. The point can be argued either way. Certainly, regardless of one’s take on the High Court’s verdict, judges are more political – to put it crudely but effectively – than they were a generation ago. The European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, the Human Rights Act, the import of such ideas as proportionality into English law: the effect of these institutions and reforms, and others, has been to make the function of judges just a little bit more like that of politicians. They can’t then complain if they’re treated in the much same way (which, to be fair, they have not).
I close where I opened. Context is everything, and let no-one pretend that the assault on the Mail takes place in any more of a vacuum than those that are unleashed on the BBC. Some of those who have criticised the paper are no doubt truly shocked that anyone should dare to criticse a judge. Scandalum magnatum! But for others the attack on Dacre Towers is but one battlefield manouevre in a long war. Study that graph above. The Mail is not the mighty Goliath of the field, with the media reach of a giant. Rather, he dominant player in the market is the BBC, with its news channels and website too funded on compulsion by the licence fee. Pulverise the Mail – or rather its editor – and you will have neutered the paper, leaving the corporation as the cock of the walk.
“Despite everything, the Daily Mail is a bastion of British democracy,” Peter Franklin once wrote on this site. “If Britain – like America – could boast a wide range of unashamedly conservative media outlets, then we could afford to be a bit sniffier about the shortcomings of any particular operation. But the reality is that our options are limited. While British conservatives have a choice of specialist and upmarket sources of news and comment, there are very few mass market challenges to the voice of the BBC and the other major broadcasters – which, to varying extents, embody the assumptions and values of the liberal establishment”. Peter was right. In essence, the paper was accused last week of behaving like a lynch mob – exactly what some of its critics are now doing. But it is their own campaign which has got out of hand.