DAVID ELSTEIN - OHA DINNER SPEAKER
Mr President, Old Habs, distinguished guests, Max, ladies and gentlemen, I greatly appreciate the invitation to speak at this excellent event.
Filling in the Daily Telegraph crossword on Saturday – as one does – I came to 2 down: “former male pupils at schools such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester”. As I wrote in “old boys”, I suppressed my irritation at the omission of Haberdashers – academically more successful than the first two, less hoity-toity than the third, and a good deal less expensive than any of the three – what’s not to like?
It still gives me pleasure when exam results are published to see that the school my brothers and I attended, as did their sons, still ranks in the top 20, often the top 10. Yet I confess that although this is the second OH evening I have attended in the last three months, it is also only the second I have attended in the last 56 years.
Perhaps the reason is that I left the school when I was just 16, and when it was still located in Cricklewood. I have been to Aldenham a couple of times to speak, but I am far more familiar with the Westbere Road site, even in its new comprehensive guise, as it is just round the corner from where my parents used to live. Indeed, my brothers and I were the only boys able to go home for lunch every day. My sole experience of school lunches was supervising them during my brief weeks as a sub-prefect.
My other disconnect was the accident of staff turnover in the history department, as I was being prepared for a Cambridge scholarship – in those days, a target after just four terms in the sixth form.
There was a new head of history, Roy Avery, and two new teachers, Ian Lister and Robert Irvine Smith. It was Lister who started the remarkable flow of boys to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, which continued after he took up a professorship at York. Robert and Roy also left, so those key links were broken. But there was one thing Roy did for me, before he took up his appointment as headmaster of Bristol Grammar.
Having won my scholarship, I had no need of A-levels, so in my final term Roy took me several times for a study session at the old Haberdashers’ Hall, near the Guildhall. There, I was allowed to peruse the underlying record books charting the founding in the 17th century of the charity that created the school.
I learned two important lessons in those visits. The first was the pleasure of handling original documents – something I still enjoy on my regular research visits to the National Archives at Kew. The other lesson was to understand how to interpret those documents, which cannot always be taken at face value. Context is all. Try and understand the motives of the writer even as you read what he has written. Be careful whom you trust.
That is really what I want to talk about tonight. I have spent most of my professional life in broadcasting and journalism, and – probably like most people – I largely respect the broadcasting and journalistic standards that prevail in the UK. But – and it is not just in the post-truth era – I have also learned to take with a large pinch of salt what broadcasters and newspapers claim for themselves in terms of respect for facts and objectivity.
I ran a network current affairs programme, This Week, for many years, and supervised literally hundreds of documentaries and factual programmes in an executive capacity. I know only too well the frailties and susceptibilities, the prejudices and private agendas, of those who work in these fields, however benign their intentions might be.
Let me give you a couple of examples. On one occasion during my editorship of This Week, I came within two hours of broadcasting a sensational programme about the Official Secrets Act, featuring an exclusive interview that a trusted journalist had brought to us. Luckily, one of my team did a deep research dive, and just before the planned transmission established that our interviewee was a fantasist. We abandoned the programme. Prudently, I had prepared as a back-up a live studio discussion on Scottish Devolution. Few people realised how close we had come to inflicting a fraud on our six million viewers. The trouble is, in pursuit of a scoop, we had wanted to believe our source.
Another example. When The Guardian, to its credit, was pursuing the phone hacking story, it decided to publish what it thought was its clinching exclusive, timed to dislodge Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy all of Sky TV.
The News of the World, The Guardian told us, had hacked into the voice mail of the murder victim, schoolgirl Milly Dowler when she was missing. More importantly, as was announced in red type at the top of The Guardian’s front page, the hacker had wiped the previously full voice mail box in order to allow new messages to be received and duly intercepted. When Milly’s parents called to leave their daughter a message, they discovered that the voice mail box had been emptied, and assumed she was responsible. They experienced a “moment of hope” that she might still be alive. Actually, she was already dead.
This story was believed not just by the House of Commons, which voted unanimously for the Sky bid to be dropped, but also by Rupert Murdoch, who not only abandoned the bid, but paid the Dowler family £2m, half from his own pocket, half from his company’s coffers.
In fact, The Guardian had failed to check with the Surrey police, who could have told them that the News of the World did not listen to Milly’s voice mails till after the so-called “moment of hope”. The police concluded that the emptying of the voice mail box was simply an automatic function of the phone. And they knew all about the hack, as three separate executives from the News of the World had told them about it at the time, believing as they did – and as a jury subsequently agreed – that the hack was in the interests of helping to find the missing schoolgirl. The Dowlers never gave back any of the money. The Guardian ran the story unchecked because it wanted it to be true: but that is activism, not journalism.
Another example. My elderly next door neighbour was ambushed by a BBC programme, which induced him to give an interview on false pretences, in breach of half a dozen strict BBC guidelines. The BBC refused to allow him to withdraw the interview before transmission, again in breach of its own rules. It edited the interview so unfairly that the media regulator, Ofcom, forced it to broadcast a lengthy negative judgement.
This the BBC did with bad grace, having dragged out the complaint process for two years, accused my neighbour and his lawyer of lying, and removed one of its own lawyers from the process when he suggested an apology be made.
I have ever since refused all BBC requests for pre-recorded interviews. Frankly, I cannot understand anyone ever consenting to a pre-record without requiring right of approval of the proposed edited version – something, of course, the BBC will never grant, as it reserves the right to edit interviews unfairly.
We are often told that the BBC has no axes to grind, and is committed to objectivity. But it doesn’t take much reflection to conclude that BBC editors – like newspaper editors – work from an agenda. Indeed, they could not organize news coverage without long discussion about what to cover, and how: news bulletins do not just happen. Nor do documentaries. Choices are made. In my neighbour’s case, the BBC had persuaded itself that he was a villain, and proceeded to treat him as such, disregarding its own rules.
Not long ago, the BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast an edition about underage workers in India, and included a sequence purporting to show children making clothes for Primark, supplied by a freelance who was also campaigner against child labour. If you go to the Primark website, you will find the evidence that persuaded the BBC’s then regulator, the BBC Trust, that the sequence had been faked. But the Panorama team refused to meet the BBC Trust’s investigator, and rejected the Trust’s findings. They wanted the sequence to be true, so they doggedly and mistakenly asserted its truthfulness.
More recently, I wrote to the BBC’s Director of News – whom I know quite well – about a 3-minute background report on supposed Muslim fears following Donald Trump’s election: an unusually lengthy item for a news bulletin. I noted that it used a sentence from an 11-month-old Trump press conference about a possible travel ban for Muslims, but cut the sentence in half so as to remove its context and change its meaning. The item ignored the much more recent, extensive and unremarkable policy statements on the Trump campaign website. Eventually, a junior executive replied to my letter, saying that the BBC was entitled to cut people off in mid-sentence, and to remove context and caveats from a statement in order to make it sound more shocking.
Of course, Trump has had a highly polarising impact on US media, with newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times explicitly turning themselves into anti-Trump campaigning vehicles, excoriating The Wall Street Journal for failing to follow suit. It means, effectively, that you cannot really trust anything they have to say about Trump, yet the BBC, in its coverage of the Trump presidency, routinely interviews journalists from those two newspapers in preference to any others as commentators on the story.
All this reveals an underlying BBC attitude towards Trump, which may or may not be justified. I know the main BBC correspondents in New York and Washington, and normally they are sensible, sober reporters. But not where Trump is concerned, again ignoring the fact that journalism and advocacy are different trades. Hoping that Trump might be impeached does not justify recycling every impeachment rumour his opponents release.
In the case of The New York Times, the abandonment of objectivity goes back further than Trump. Its hostility to Brexit is so pronounced that it recently ran a 10-page special supplement devoted to what it described as the inevitable post-Brexit decline and fall of London, especially when all EU citizens have been forcibly repatriated. I wrote in protest to the author of the supplement, whom I happen to know. Answer came there not.
The New York Times’ coverage of anything to do with Murdoch is inevitably coloured by its deep rivalry with the Murdoch empire. Recently, it ran a series of articles about bad behaviour at Fox News, regularly suggesting that these stories could affect the outcome of the latest Murdoch bid to own all of Sky. As any expert in the matter could have told them, if presenters at Fox News had committed mass murder, rather than just sexually harass female employees, it still could not have led to a blocking of the bid.
But The Guardian and the BBC have enthusiastically relayed all these stories, along with the supposed implications. Last night on Newsnight, the BBC again gave a compensation-seeking lawyer airtime to attack Fox, again misleading its viewers into believing his complaints might affect the bid outcome. Again, the wish was father to the story. The New York Times, The Guardian and the BBC would like to see the bid blocked. Their reporting reflects that. And – no doubt partly as a result of their reporting – the bid process will be unduly prolonged.
The Guardian, of course, is a Murdoch competitor, and many things are fair in love and war. All anti-Murdoch newspapers are entitled to use their opinion columns to urge politicians and regulators to block – by whatever means available – any expansion of Murdoch’s reach. The BBC is not a Murdoch competitor. It should not be abusing its position in this way.
Even The Guardian, outside its leader page, should be obliged to report Murdoch-related stories with some regard to accuracy. Yet recently it published an article by Ed Miliband and Vince Cable, claiming that the latest bid for Sky should be blocked because the Murdoch Family Trust controlled 45% of radio news listening in the UK. The correct figure is between 1% and 2%, but when you are fighting a war, who cares about what is correct?
That article was firmly in the category of fake news, a phenomenon which flourishes in a polarised atmosphere. But even when the distortion caused by polarisation stops short of actual fakery, the bias and selectivity of reporting arguably does even more damage than fakes which can be exposed as such. It is now almost as impossible to watch CNN and MSNBC as Fox News, because of the relentless trashing of Trump. Likewise, the Evening Standard has become an almost unreadable anti-May, anti-Brexit rant, as George Osborne plays to his solidly Remain audience.
As many have remarked, our referendum campaign became something of a fact-free zone – at least, in terms of uncontested facts. Indeed, the one uncontestable fact was barely mentioned – that leaving the EU was very difficult because the 2-year timetable for a leave process imposed by the Lisbon Treaty was specifically designed to deter departures. Leavers didn’t want to highlight the complexity. Remainers were reluctant to expose what could look like another Brussels fix. So Project Fear and bonkers Boris bus placards dominated the news coverage instead.
And, disturbingly, bias pays. Fox News has made a massive fortune for the Murdochs, by inviting older, conservative viewers to shun the so-called “mainstream media” in favour of a dedicated comfort zone. And since it launched its anti-Trump campaign, subscriptions to The New York Times have soared. Ratings for all the embattled cable news stations have grown.
We have a special difficulty with the BBC, because it is so overwhelmingly the dominant source of news in this country. It is responsible for a 61% share of all UK news consumption, with no rival capturing more than 10% of the market. No other news organisation in the free world has such a dominant position. In the United States, the BBC would have been broken up decades ago, in response to the potential dangers such a level of dominance represents.
In 1689, when Robert Aske bequeathed £20,000 – an enormous sum, worth tens of millions in today’s money – to house indigent men and educate poor boys, it was all carefully written down: the names, the amounts spent, and so on. Part of that was straightforward accounting: but another part, surely, was telling a story, of beneficence, of worldly success leading to charitable outcomes. This is the version of Robert Aske we have received: but who knows what deeds, fair or foul, lay behind the accumulation of such vast wealth?
The known history of the Aske Foundation – which these days we can consult online – tells of scandal and success, collapse and re-invention; a little frustratingly, Aske himself is lost in the mists of time. But it was poring over those records that first instilled in me the urge to interrogate the apparent evidence. Who was telling me what, and why?
“Trust no one,” Mulder tells Scully in The X Files: wise advice – but he also tells her: “the truth is out there”. The problem is, finding it, and recognising it when you do. I hope the message is clear: when reporting is infected by advocacy, it is at its least trustworthy. It is not tabloid excesses, or online fakery, that I see as the biggest dangers, but trusted media that choose to abuse our trust.
Mr President, it is traditional that the evening’s guest speaker proposes a toast, to “The Association”, which I am happy to do. I hope you will allow me an addendum, a private toast in memory of my older brother, Ian, the first in my family to attend Haberdashers, who died after an operation in Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital, across the road, just two years ago. This is the first time I have revisited this part of London since that sad night. So, to visit the new Haberdashers Hall, 56 years after encountering the old Hall, is something of a poignant occasion.
To return to my duties as your guest speaker, may I please ask you to ensure your glasses are filled, and join me in toasting “The Association”.