Stephen Glover on the press

Why did those high-minded people at 'The Guardian' take so long to apologise?
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The Independent Online
Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited by The Guardian to a dinner celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. It is fair to say, I think, that The Guardian and I have had our slight differences over the years, but as I walked into the beautiful room at Tate Modern, where the dinner was to be held, I felt a surge of affection for the paper, and a strong sense of turning a new page.

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited by The Guardian to a dinner celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. It is fair to say, I think, that The Guardian and I have had our slight differences over the years, but as I walked into the beautiful room at Tate Modern, where the dinner was to be held, I felt a surge of affection for the paper, and a strong sense of turning a new page.

There was its saturnine editor, Alan Rusbridger, and, unless I was much mistaken, I caught a glimpse of his deputy, Georgina Henry. Liz Forgan, the glorious blue-stocking and chairperson of the Scott Trust, which controls The Guardian, was also in evidence. Here, I felt, were decent and charming people, and I wondered how I could ever have been at odds with them. Particularly agreeable was Ian Mayes, The Guardian's ombudsman, or readers' editor. Almost alone among British newspapers, The Guardian takes its corrections and clarifications very seriously. It doubtless explains why the newspaper had agreed to host a conference for ombudsmen from around the world, and to throw a delicious dinner in this beautiful room overlooking the Thames.

Readers will not wish me to labour the point that it is not often that one finds a gathering of such high-minded and virtuous people in a single place. In a short address at the end of dinner, the American president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, Jeffrey Dvorkin, showered praise on The Guardian for leading the way with its scrupulous corrections, and for championing the role of independent ombudsmen, whom he saw as the guarantors of democracy. He even said that he wished he could clone Liz Forgan and take her back to America, which pleased her very much. She made a gracious speech which only the very uncharitable would have said was tinged with the tiniest scintilla of self-satisfaction.

This was a rousing occasion which I shall never forget. Imagine the shock I felt soon afterwards when I learnt that The Guardian had recently been savaged by a High Court judge for refusing to publish a correction in its much lauded column, which is to be found at the foot of the letters page. I can only pray that poor Mr Dvorkin did not know about this unfortunate case before boarding his plane for America, and that no one will be graceless enough to tell him about it.

On 16 September 2004, The Guardian ran a story under the headline "UK officers linked to torture jail". The piece, by Richard Norton-Taylor, suggested that senior British officers had been working at Abu Ghraib, the notorious torture prison in Baghdad, and damagingly implicated Colonel Campbell-James, an officer in the intelligence Corps. It brushed aside a statement by a government minister that no British officers had at any time supervised American servicemen at Abu Ghraib.

In fact Colonel Campbell-James had never visited the prison, and was not in Iraq when the abuse of prisoners took place. Not unnaturally, he took exception to The Guardian's story, which was disseminated in the Arab world, believing that it might put him at personal risk there if and when he returned. He sought a correction, but for nearly three months The Guardian refused to run a single word until a short and notably unfulsome apology was finally published on 12 December 2004 in the corrections and clarifications column alongside an item pointing out that Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells had been wrongly referred to as having an "all-male cast".

It would be too distressing to list all the remarks of Mr Justice Eady, but duty requires that I repeat one or two. "This was plainly a case," he said, "for an immediate and generous acknowledgement of error and for putting matters right, as far as was then in their power, as soon as possible ... One can surely assume that the editor and Mr Richard Norton-Taylor would have known perfectly well how serious it was to link anyone, British officer or not, to the Abu Ghraib abuses." In the view of the judge, "this was a serious libel to which the response of the newspaper was, to say the least, ungenerous".

To be fair to The Guardian - as it plainly was not to Colonel Campbell-James - it did publish a full report of Mr Justice Eady's judgement (and his awarding of £55,000 in damages) on 13 May. But this was rather late in the day. On this occasion, at least, the celebrated corrections and clarifications column had not responded, and when it finally cranked into action it did so in a churlish way. Study the column and you will find that it is normally full of footling errors of the Swan-Lake-at-Sadler's-Wells variety. It appears that The Guardian is no more eager than other newspapers - and possibly less so - to admit its substantial faults.

Is Rebekah Wade merely a figment of Rupert Murdoch's fevered imagination?

One school of thought holds that Rebekah Wade, allegedly editor of The Sun, does not actually exist. She never appears on radio or television, or picks up the telephone. When supposedly editor of the News of the World, she started a "name and shame" campaign for paedophiles that led to rioting in Portsmouth, yet she could not be dragged from her lair to justify herself. Some say that Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the Sun, dreamt her up in his dotage, throwing together random elements - pre-Raphaelite hair, attendance at the Sorbonne university, former membership of the Young Conservatives - to tease us. Others claim she is a former page three girl who entered "Fortress Wapping" and never got out.

On balance there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that she does exist. She is said to have visited Chequers, the Prime Minister's country retreat. Would Number Ten lie about this? Relations between Tony Blair and Rebekah are believed to be cordial. Some say he would like to bestow a Damehood on her in recognition of the spirited support the Sun gave New Labour during the election. If so, it would clear up once and for all the question of her existence, for she would be obliged to go along to Buckingham Palace to receive her gong.

Let me, however, enter a word of warning. Mr Murdoch does not like his employees receiving honours. When Larry Lamb, an early editor of The Sun, accepted a knighthood, he was soon shown the door. Mr Murdoch is especially proprietorial in the matter of Dames in deference to his mother, the 96-year-old Dame Elizabeth Murdoch. Dame Rebekah Wade would grate awfully. The ambitions she is said to harbour of being the next chief executive of News International, publisher of Mr Murdoch's titles in London, would also be dashed.

Les Hinton, the current incumbent of the post, is 61, and increasingly preoccupied with his extra-mural activities. He is expected to retire at 62. Rebekah may only be 37, and without business experience, but she is believed to fancy the job. After all, Mr Hinton is himself a former Sun journalist, albeit one with management experience at the time of his appointment. Rebekah does have a strong rival, though, in the almost equally self-effacing John Witherow, who has been editor of the Sunday Times for 10 long years. If Rebekah wants not to scupper her chances, she must not be damed.

Stephen Glover can be contacted at scmgox@aol.com

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