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The one you could know about

22 April 2016

Named and shamed: John Whittingdale in The Guardian last week

Named and shamed: John Whittingdale in The Guardian last week

THIS has been a thought-provoking week for anyone who cares about the power of the press.

Two stories involving sexual scandal have been writhing around the front pages. Both involve consenting adults doing things that would have been thought ridiculous and disgusting under the old dispensation, but about which we are supposed not to be in the least bit judgemental today.

One is described as “a celebrity”, and the other is John Whittingdale, the politician responsible for regulating the press. It’s quite likely that the celebrity will lose his legal battle to keep his name out of the English press before you read this, but that has not officially happened yet. So, although I know perfectly well who it is, like everyone else with access to the internet — or, indeed, to the Scottish press — I’ll pretend that I don’t.

It is, however, relevant that “the celebrity” is a figure of no distinction in the real world, famous entirely for being famous. These sorts of people have no political significance whatsoever, but readers are interested in their doings; so they sell newspapers.

 

THE politician, on the other hand, is ultimately the man who holds the purse strings at the BBC, and who is constantly encouraged in the right-wing press to use them to strangle it. The collapsing finances of the newspaper business mean that the existence and freedom of the BBC is more than usually obnoxious to the Mail, the Telegraph, and The Times. It turns online news into a commodity in a very obvious way, which means that money cannot be made out of it; and it is a smaller and more vulnerable target than either Facebook or Google, which are really the places where advertising is going.

Mr Whittingdale is level-headed about this. He told a media conference this year: “The BBC does have an impact on online news provision, but my concern is that, while the BBC may make it harder, it doesn’t pose a threat to the survival which I think adblockers could do.” It showed that he understands the things that the press should be worried about, and is broadly on its side.

It emerged last week that at least three newspapers were aware that Mr Whittingdale, before he became a minister, had a fairly public relationship with a woman who made her living running a bondage dungeon in Earls Court. Yet none of them published the news.

When The Independent, which came last to the party, wanted to publish a piece about why The Mail on Sunday and the Mirror Group had failed to run the story, that, too, was spiked — apparently on the grounds that the paper was then a tenant of the Mail in Kensington, and could not afford to upset its “asset”.

Mr Whittingdale says that he dropped his girlfriend as soon as he became aware of what she did for a living. This suggests that he agreed the story could become embarrassing — a point taken up from the girlfriend’s point of view by Deborah Orr in The Guardian, which in turn strengthens the idea that it would have been in the public interest to publish.

It is supposed to be the function of the press to embarrass the powerful rather than the merely rich or famous. But, of course, what the conjunction of the two stories illustrates is that power is something that has a rate of exchange. The ownership of a newspaper offers power over the people you direct your minions to write about, and this power can, in turn, be converted into political favours, or just into fun.

Yet this system is a whole lot like democracy: all the alternatives are worse. I suppose the moral is that we in the business should no more believe our own propaganda than we should believe anyone else’s.

 

THE best piece of religious reporting this week came from The Times, where Andrew Norfolk, who broke the Rotherham child-abuse story, had got hold of a Home Office report on Muslim prison chaplaincies.

“The review concluded that many Muslim prison chaplains were under-equipped for counter-radicalisation work, ‘sometimes because they lacked the capability but often because they didn’t have the will. . .’

“The review, ordered last year by Michael Gove, found extremist pamphlets and CDs in more than ten jails in November. It uncovered misogynistic and homophobic leaflets, hate tracts encouraging the murder of apostates, and ultra-conservative Islamic literature preaching contempt for basic British values. The material, some of it published in Saudi Arabia, was kept on bookshelves in prison chaplaincy rooms where it was available for anybody to come in and pick up.”

This much might be predictable. What gave the story weight was that it went on to treat this as an outgrowth of the Deobandi stranglehold on British Islamic education. At last there are press reports that deal with the currents that actually exist within British Islam rather than merely wave vague labels such as “extremist” around.

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