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15 April 2011

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

Curious silence over Hugh Grant’s scoop.

By Jason Cowley

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.

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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.