How to get ahead in journalism, the meaning of trust and Nadine Dorries’s brain

Stop press. Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, has rejected a resignation offer from George Entwistle, the director general. Entwistle in turn has declined the resignation of Liz Gibbons, the Newsnight editor responsible for the story that falsely accused Lord McAlpine of child abuse.

No, that isn’t what happened and you can imagine the outrage from newspapers if it had. Yet it is roughly what happened at the Daily Mail in 1977. Consumed by its hatred for the Labour government (just as the BBC, according to the Mail, is now consumed by its hatred for That - cherite Tories such as McAlpine), it reported that the state-owned car-maker British Leyland, with written permission from Lord Ryder, chairman of the National Enterprise Board, had used a “slush fund” to bribe agents so it could sell its products abroad. “No ifs and buts,” the Mail thundered. “Lord Ryder must go.”

The story, it turned out, was based on a forged letter Ryder had supposedly sent to Leyland’s chief executive. David English, the Mail editor, offered to resign but Lord Rothermere, the proprietor, told him to stay. Stewart Steven, the associate editor who oversaw the libellous story, also offered to resign but English rejected this.

English, knighted in 1982, went on to edit the Mail until 1992, when he became chairman and editor-in-chief of its parent company. Steven – who at the Daily Express in 1972 wrongly reported that Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann was alive and well in South America –went on to edit the Mail on Sundayand the Evening Standard. At the latter, he printed an article critical of Tony Blair, then the opposition leader, allegedly by Bryan Gould, a former Labour frontbencher. It was actually written by the teenage son of Michael Howard, then home secretary.

I could produce a long list of newspaper editors who failed to resign over outrageous libels and other egregious errors and a much shorter list of those who did resign. I can give no examples of newspapers that allowed their employees to make such a fool of the boss (as John Humphrys did of Entwistle on Radio 4’s Today programme) that he had to leave his job within hours. Poor Entwistle may reflect that he worked at the wrong time in the wrong media organisation.

Going rogue

The BBC, it is said, has lost trust and that is a bad thing. It depends on what you mean by trust. Our largest-circulation newspaper, the Sun, is trusted to provide exciting headlines, gripping stories and bare-breasted lovelies. Yet I do not think it is trusted to tell the whole truth or anything resembling it. The local and regional press, which has worked hard to keep “community trust”, has suffered a steeper decline than the cynics of Fleet Street.

A while ago, the BBC was said to have lost trust over rigged polls and competitions on television, yet it is still there, as are the viewers for the competitions. Trust is supposedly important for politicians, too. That makes it hard to explain why Richard Nixon, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, all widely regarded as liars, won so many elections while Michael Foot, John Major and William Hague, widely praised as straight and honest men, won so few. As for Boris Johnson, trust hardly belongs in the same sentence. The truth is that, in the media, as in politics, people prefer rogues to saints.

Bird on the wire

Despite David Dimbleby’s denials, I am not entirely convinced that his interview with Humphrys wasn’t a bid for the top job. The message was clear: the BBC is choked by managers who speak gobbledegook, play the system and keep away from trouble. He, Dimbleby, on the other hand, had worked in news, made films and covered big events.

Dimbleby is 74 and says it would be “against the rules” for him to become director general. Rules, however, can be changed or waived. Asked if Patten should stay, Dimbleby said he should, because he was “a shrewd old bird”. Will Patten, 68, now appoint an even older and shrewder bird?

Lines of symmetry

Perhaps being called “director general” causes people to lose all touch with reality. John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, argues in the Times: “We now need to draw a line under PPI [payment protection insurance, which the banks missold to millions].” The government should set a date after which any further claims for compensation may be refused.

Could the banks, in return, draw a line under mortgage repayments instead of repossessing homes? Would the power companies, as a gesture of goodwill on behalf of the corporate sector, mind drawing a line under fuel bills instead of cutting off supplies?

Brain drain

Human beings are becoming more stupid, according to a scientist at Stanford University in California, because they no longer live in the wild, needing to keep their wits about them. If so, Nadine Dorries will presumably return from the jungle with a bigger brain. Which won’t help her with the Tory whips, who don’t like clever people.


Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC