A Cable from the Front

Talk about being hoist with its own petard.  The Daily Telegraph sends in undercover reporters to see if a cabinet minister will spill the beans on splits in the cabinet and gets more than it bargained for.

Let’s be clear; there was no public interest justification for what the Telegraph did.  There was no suggestion of wrong-doing.  There was no indication that laws had been broken or rules bent.  The fact that Vince Cable was widely thought to be at odds with his Conservative colleagues on any number of policy issues was neither here nor there.  It was certainly not news.  This was a fishing trip.  The reporters used deception.  It was unethical.

However clearly the Telegraph’s editors didn’t like what their gofers uncovered because they cut Cable’s comments about the News International bid for control of BSkyS from their reports.  They excised them in the full knowledge that Cable’s statements about being at war with [Rupert] Murdoch over the issue were in direct conflict with his quasi judicial role in being the final arbiter of that bid.

The Telegraph, like most of the rest of the British media, doesn’t want to see Murdoch succeed.  They fear his dominance for commercial reasons.  The rest of us should fear his dominance because it’s a very real threat to our democracy.  Even the Director General of the BBC is reportedly sucking up to the old crocodile, saying that there’s no reason in the internet age why Murdoch shouldn’t politicise Sky News and turn it into a tawdry British version of Fox.

It’s a shameful day when the inheritor of Reith’s mantle throws the responsibility that goes with his role to the winds.  One might have thought that Thompson missed the general election campaign entirely.  One leaders’ TV debate and Clegg took the Lib Dems from 20% to 30% in the polls overnight.  Is TV of lesser importance in the internet age?  Utter tosh.  The proliferation of information, much of it bad, malicious or plain inaccurate has made impartial and balanced sources of news more vital than ever; and fairness and balance is what the law demands of broadcast news, especially at election times.  That’s why voters turn to it.

And Lo! despite the Telegraph’s attempts to bury the Murdoch issue it leaked out.  The BBC’s Robert Peston got wind of it, and while BBC guidelines would expressly forbid the sort of fishing expedition commissioned by the Telegraph and would normally preclude scooping material from such, Peston must have judged (and rightly so) that there was an overriding public interest justification by virtue of the conflict of interest the Telegraph had uncovered.

Within hours Cable was off the case and his veto passed to the much misnamed Jeremy Hunt.  If any member of the cabinet has signalled his closeness to the Murdochs it is Hunt.  Unless the enquiry into UK media plurality is unequivocal in its finding that the News International bid would damage that plurality  the odds are Hunt will push it through.

If the Lib Dems have any sort of residual survival instinct that will be the moment they pull the plug on this government and take Britain back to the polls.  Having unwittingly announced their undying enmity to the Murdoch empire they must be much afraid that News International’s every corporate sinew will be straining with the effort as it sets out to destroy their party.

These are indeed dark days for our freedom to read, write and think as we please.  Not only has Murdoch effectively despatched an implacable foe but the United States government finally seems to have realised that the pen is mightier than the sword and sensing it is losing an information arms race with Wikileaks has taken to suggesting that it is a terrorist organisation.

Just as a new era of transparency was about to be foisted on democratic governments the clouds gather once more.

So today, as a personal reminder of the vital importance of a free and plural press, I acquired a memento of a man who did more than most to defend ours.

In 1763 John Wilkes published an attack on the King’s Speech to parliament in his newspaper The North Briton.  It started a chain of events that resulted first in Wilkes’ imprisonment and eventually in the unfettered right of newspapers to report parliamentary proceedings.  It was quite possibly that victory for freedom that led very shortly thereafter to the flowering of the press in England and thence in no small measure to the democratic society we know today.

I shall hang Wilkes’ signature and seal over my desk as a daily challenge to play my own small part in defending free speech.

Make no mistake; this, not the government’s cuts, is the true cause of our times.  If we lose our right to speak out, to fair coverage of our politics, to challenge the government of the day, to demonstrate and to voice our dissent then the most powerful weapons in our opposition to cuts, whether it be these or those faced by the next and future generations, will be denied us.

The present battle may be over cuts.  The war, as has ever been the case, is for liberty.

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