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.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder