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.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories