2012 in review: The New Statesman on... the media

From Leveson to the scandals at the BBC, no-one in the media has escaped this year unscathed.

Welcome to the fourth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Christmas Eve's round up, of our best writing on religion, is here.)

At the beginning of the year, it looked like it would unfold much like the one before. Phone hacking, and the fallout from it, were still very much in the headlines, and the Leveson inquiry looked like it would keep the focus on the tabloid press. But by December, it appeared that last year's hunted were this year's hunters, as the BBC came under fire for a series of journalistic failings. Here are a selection of our best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

Alan Rusbridger: the quiet evangelist

Alan Rusbridger can claim to be the Guardian’s greatest editor. But Peter Wilby asked whether he will also be its last, in this in-depth examination of the paper and the man.

“It’s better journalism,” Rusbridger says, “if, as well as Michael Billington [the Guardian’s theatre critic], you can harness the views and judgements of 800 other people in the audience at the same time. Is the same true of science, foreign, investigative reporting? The answer, I think, is always yes.
Mutuality, he suggests, could be the model for journalism’s future. “If you build a complete paywall around your content, you’re saying you’re not interested in that sort of journalism . . . When you’ve been to a digital conference in New York, you come away thinking that newspapers are lucky to be in this game at all.”

BBC Television Centre: the fairness was what made the magic

The sell-off of TV Centre was confirmed this year, and the majority of staff have already left for different offices. Alan White looks back at the continued attraction the building had for generations of viewers.

As a child growing up in the sticks, I remember the opening credits of Wogan's chat show, "Live from Shepherd's Bush"; the opening picture of TVC, perhaps illuminated by searchlights, as if The Shepherd's Bush was a huge donut-shaped slab, there simply to accommodate Terry and his immaculately-coiffured hair. I remember the mischievous insurgent Kenny Everett attempting to scale the side of Terry's fortress, though I can't remember the context for this sketch. I remember all those intriguing little occasions when the shroud would be ripped away - Children In Need skits where the cameras would pan out of the studio and follow our stars down the corridors. And I remember, of course, the Blue Peter garden.

O Mother, where art thou?

Mother Jones, a small bimonthly American news magazine, shows that public-service journalism can survive even in the 21st century USA. You may not have heard of it, but you'll have heard the fall-out from one of its scoops, when Mitt Romney was secretly recorded telling reporters that 47 per cent of the country was "dependent" on Obama. Helen Lewis looks at what other publications can learn from its model.

So what is Mother Jones? Founded in 1976 and named after a trade unionist and opponent of child labour, it is a bimonthly title dedicated to unfashionable causes and undercover investigations. In March this year, its reporter Mac McClelland wrote “I was a warehouse wage slave”, about an online-shipping company that sounded suspiciously like Amazon (it was not identified in her piece). The conditions experienced by the temporary workers were brutal: 12-hour stretches running around a cold, cavernous warehouse, with every trip meticulously timed through a hand-held scanner; lunch breaks of “29 minutes and 59 seconds”; limited access to the overcrowded toilets and constant reminders that “there’s 16 other people who want your job”.

The silence of Jimmy Savile’s lambs

As news of Savile's crimes surfaced, the writer and former England rugby international Brian Moore wrote that he wasn’t at all surprised the DJ’s victims didn’t speak up earlier. He argued that as long as victims live in fear of not being listened to, they won’t talk.

I and many of Savile’s victims did not tell because we did not think we would be believed. What we victims need is not just an immediate person being sympathetic and taking a statement. We need to know that a proper investigation will be made if we make a complaint; to know that the Crown Prosecution Service will be robust and that every effort will be made to secure a conviction. So harrowing is the telling of our stories that we have to have utmost faith that as much as possible will be done to rectify the wrong and to help us bear the extra stress of an investigation and trial.

A sense of perspective on the BBC

In the midst of the crisis at the BBC, following the Savile revelations and false accusations of Lord McAlpine, Joan Bakewell wrote to defend the corporation as a flawed, human institution, like any other.

The BBC now needs a large dose of courage that enables it to look boldly on its structural failings and put some hefty remedies in place. It has a decades-long history of fine programmes that have made legends of its stars, educated the public, spawned heaps of imitators and won a unique reputation throughout the broadcasting world. It now needs to be left alone to regret, to mourn and to repair itself.

Leader: Leveson, the press and transparency

Before the Leveson inquiry reported, the press was largely united in supporting a stronger system of regulation - but one put together internally, without the interference of government. How strange, then, that after Lord Leveson made his pronouncements, many of that same group attended a private meeting with the Prime Minister to decide on a united response. We smelled a rat.

The explicit purpose of the discussions is to give newspapers an opportunity to devise some new form of self-regulation that will come close enough to what Lord Justice Leveson proposes without requiring a bill in parliament. Another way of describing the same goal is that the editors (and/or their paymasters) have been invited to come up with something lenient enough for their own satisfaction, yet that looks sufficiently rigorous to give Mr Cameron political cover to say that the spirit of Leveson is preserved. In other words, it has all the makings of the kind of cosy establishment stitch-up that has allowed journalistic malpractice to flourish for so long.


Alan Rusbriger, editor of the Guardian. Photo: Muir Vidler/New Statesman

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.