Stephen Glover on The Press: How easy it is to slip on a banana skin when your nose is in the air
Monday 22 September 2008
Tesco has won its epic legal battle with The Guardian. Last Tuesday the paper published an apology that can only be described as abject. It was wrong to run a "splash" last February accusing the supermarket chain of trying to avoid paying £1bn in corporation tax. The article should not have been published, and the allegations were unfounded.
Two questions fascinate me. How could The Guardian have published such a wildly inaccurate piece in the first place? And why did the paper take so very long – and spend so much money on lawyers – before admitting an error that a child of three could have spotted?
Even I, knowing practically nothing about tax, wrote in this column on 14 April that The Guardian had got its taxes in a muddle. The paper had accused Tesco of avoiding corporation tax when it meant stamp duty land tax. Of course, it was wrong about that, too. It seems incredible that competent financial journalists could get things so badly mixed up, and equally incredible that such serious allegations could be published without being properly checked. We know from the paper's defence document that its editor, Alan Rusbridger, was barely involved in the decision to run this incendiary story.
Why, having got almost everything wrong, did it not simply capitulate? On 3 May the paper admitted its muddle over taxes, but it did not withdraw the imputation of some tax avoidance, and went on to preach at Tesco in an editorial about the company's social responsibility in meeting its tax obligations. This from a newspaper whose parent company, the Guardian Media Group, had been recently involved with its private equity partner Apax in a scheme to minimise its tax liabilities! Such a combination of sanctimony and hypocrisy is hard to beat.
If The Guardian had had the grace and good sense on 3 May to admit its fault in the way that it was required to do last week, Tesco would have dropped the case. The company felt so baited that it made the mistake of accusing Mr Rusbridger of malicious falsehood. He could not have been malicious in publishing the article because he had played virtually no part in it. I doubt any Guardian journalists were moved by malice. More likely some of them were driven by an anti-capitalist agenda which allows facts to be bent so as to fit a prejudice. That does not mean I love Tesco; I certainly don't.
The paper published a false and damaging story and misled its readers, many of whom probably lapped up the smears, and some of whom will doubtless go on believing them. It has presumably spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on lawyers' fees. And yet, so far as I know, no knuckles have been rapped. The Guardian sails on serenely under Mr Rusbridger's light-rein editorship as though nothing untoward had happened. The apology was tucked away at the bottom of the front page, and continued discreetly on page 32. Why Tesco accepted this downplaying, God only knows. Even in the act of apologising, the paper has its nose in the air.
The press has its own transfer market
There has been a great deal of recent activity in the lucrative football transfer market... I mean the newspaper one.
Martin Samuel, the award-winning chief football writer at The Times, is defecting to the Daily Mail, allegedly for £400,000 a year. This may be what Frank Lampard of Chelsea earns in three weeks, but it is a lot of money in Fleet Street.
At the Mail, Samuel will be taking over the shirt worn by Paul Hayward, who is moving to The Guardian. The Mail signed Hayward from The Daily Telegraph three years ago amid much hoopla, but in the view of some he has never really fitted into the paper's formation. He has been compared to the striker Andrei Shevchenko, who, having been AC Milan's second most prolific striker, found it difficult to put the ball in the back of the net for Chelsea.
Meanwhile, Harry Harris, one of the country's top football writers, has left the Daily Express. In 2002, Harris transferred from the Daily Mirror to the Express for what was then close to a record fee of £300,000 a year. He has had a notable career, being responsible for many scoops, but had his differences with management. Harris has not yet been snapped up by a rival, though according to reports he may turn out occasionally for the BBC.
Like the Premier League, sports pages have their own financial scandals. According to reports this week, The People has just sacked its sports editor, Lee Horton, after an investigation into alleged "financial irregularities", and some expect police to mount an enquiry. Perhaps they should call in Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and a writer for the News of the World, who has been investigating real-life football "bungs". If life sometimes imitates art, sports pages would appear increasingly to imitate football.
A year is a long time in Polly-tics
Before Gordon Brown gets up tomorrow to make the most important speech of his life, he may reflect that very few of the columnists who cheered him a year ago are still by his side.
This is what The Guardian's Polly Toynbee wrote on the eve of last year's Labour Party Conference. "Gordon Brown has put to rest his ghosts with deft brushstrokes. Blairites said he would never be agile enough, but in just three months he has coped with crisis after crisis and emerged all the stronger. They said people would never warm to his manner, but he has charmed and pleased with his blend of seriousness and sincerity."
And this is what Polly wrote last week. "Brown had strength – not charm, nor ease – but he was prudent and purposeful. Now he is left politically naked . . . Many in his party want him gone . . . They want it for the same reason all parties ditch leaders about to take them to destruction."
David Cameron, be warned.
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