Is the BBC’s Today programme scared of Rupert Murdoch?

Curious silence over Hugh Grant’s scoop.

Even Roy Greenslade, in a rather sour Guardian piece, grudgingly conceded that Hugh Grant's hilarious entrapment of the former News of the World executive Paul McMullan was a decent story, at the same time offering the startling observation that online was now more influential than print (Roy, surely not!).

Grant's report for our issue of 11 April has become a global media sensation, as Greenslade knows. The traffic from all over the world has been so great that on several occasions our website has crashed. Last night, ITV's News at 10 broadcast extracts from Hugh's secretly recorded conversation with McMullan at his pub in Dover.

To its credit, Sky News also wanted to broadcast extracts, having contacted us about the article on several occasions. However, the BBC has been curiously silent, and has made no attempt to report what most other media outlets and most of the Twittersphere – oh yes, Hugh Grant has been trending – have conceded to be a significant story.

When Jemima Khan and I were discussing her guest edit of the New Statesman we agreed that she would do only two interviews to promote it, one print (the London Evening Standard) and one broadcast. BBC2's Newsnight wanted to have her on the programme to talk about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. That didn't interest us. I thought the Today programme, with its six million listeners, would be preferable.

I spoke to a contact at Today and, in confidence, told him about the Hugh Grant story and its implications. He was very interested and said that his night editor – this was on the evening of Wednesday 6 April, just ahead of publication of the magazine – would call me back to discuss having Jemima on the programme the following morning to talk about Hugh, phone-tapping and the News of the World. (In his report Hugh revealed for the first time that he had been hacked by the News of the World, not an uninteresting revelation, and one that Jemima, his former girlfriend, was happy to discuss candidly in her only broadcast media interview.)

In the event, the night editor did not call me back, not even by way of courtesy. Our conclusion is that the Today programme either has no sense of a story or, more likely, someone there was alarmed at the prospect of covering Grant's adventure as an undercover reporter and some of the more powerful allegations made by McMullan, who seems like a first-rate huckster.

Something similar happened when my colleague Helen Lewis-Hasteley spoke to Radio 5's Drive programme this week to discuss appearing on the show, as she sometimes does. "Would you like me to talk about Hugh Grant?" she asked. There was a chorus of "Nos" from the producers. Similarly, she spent 20 minutes talking to BBC Radio Kent on Friday 8 March, in a spiky interview covering the ethics of covert recordings and whether the New Statesman was "buying into celebrity culture". It was not broadcast.

"I can understand some of the frustration the Guardian must feel about this story," says Helen. "To give them their credit, they have been plugging away at this issue for months – while many other commentators said there was 'nothing to see here' – and have been studiously ignored for their trouble. Even now there have been further arrests, and News International has apologised and offered payouts to several victims, the extent of the media silence is astonishing."

What is going on? What is it about this story that makes the BBC so anxious? Could it be that independent BBC editors are operating a form of self-censorship because they fear ... what, exactly? What is that our licence-fee-funded, "impartial", public-service broadcaster fears about the Murdoch family and its tentacular grip on power in Britain? Or has an edict come down from on high? We should be told.

Update: The BBC have been in touch to say that the interview with Helen was in fact broadcast - elsewhere in the programme.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.