The press is using ‘paedomania’ to wrongfoot politicians post phone-hacking

I suspect most of the public think this quest for answers a good thing


The cover of the latest edition of The Spectator suggests that Britain is going through “The new Inquisition” in its attempt to root out paedophiles.

Inside the magazine, Rod Liddle talks of a nation in the grip of “paedomania” in an article headlined “A very British witch hunt”. His colleague Matthew Parris writes that “this national panic about paedophilia is careering right out of control”. Neither of these writers mentions the other agenda behind this “Inquisition”.

The deafening clamour over an alleged Westminster paedophile ring is being stoked by the written word. What we are witnessing is a collective show of strength by the press in once again taking on the British political establishment.

As soon as the Old Bailey trial ended, most newspapers lost no time in expressing their deeply held resentment at their treatment by Parliament over the past three years. The hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone so wrong-footed the press that it found itself being bundled down a hill first by the politicians and then by Lord Justice Leveson; the process left it exposed, embarrassed and bruised.

We are now seeing payback for what many papers regard as Westminster’s disproportionate response to the misdemeanours of Andy Coulson and some of his underlings.

The press coverage of Parliament’s paedophiles has been awesome to behold – that is, awesome in the traditional sense of jaw-dropping, rather than punching the air in delight. It refutes the popular notion that Fleet Street’s muscles have been withered by the debilitating impact of the changing media landscape.

It arrived at the start of the month, facilitated by the storm around the conviction of Rolf Harris. I first noticed it as a gentle swell, rolling in behind the crashing breakers of the Harris story, as a page-eight lead in the Daily Mail: “Leon Brittan challenged over paedophile dossier”. The paper assigned sketch writer Quentin Letts to report on Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk as he raised the matter before a parliamentary committee.

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The Mail has many critics but no one in the industry doubts its ability to spot a contentious issue – or its aggression in bringing the matter to wider attention. In the ensuing days, it deployed its top reporters to force the story to the top of the agenda. “How the Establishment hid the monster in their midst,” it declared, feeding the fire beneath the pressure cooker. Other papers – notably The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and the leading red tops – investigated the story with vigour and demanded action from politicians.

Press reformers such as Hacked Off get queasy at the sight of the press riding out together in pursuit. But when the quarry is not the family of a murder victim but rather a secretary of state and his powerful colleagues in an alleged cover-up it’s a different spectacle. I would suspect that most members of the public think this quest for answers is a good thing.

On 6 July, The Independent on Sunday broke the news that Brittan himself had been questioned by police in connection with an alleged rape in 1967 of a 19-year-old student. The Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday splashed the same story. Last week, as the newspapers kept up the attack, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry, which will also investigate child abuse in other British institutions.

Not since the great expenses scandal of 2009 has the press had politicians on the back foot. Of course, it’s not quite that adversarial. Campaigning MPs, such as Danczuk, Tom Watson and John Mann, have also shone a light on this matter.

It has been a difficult story for the BBC because it covers such similar territory as the North Wales care homes scandal, which led to Newsnight smearing Lord McAlpine and provoking an uproar that caused the resignation of its director-general George Entwistle in 2012.

BBC News is nervously awaiting this Thursday’s announcement from James Harding, BBC director of news, of where the latest job “savings” will come. I’m hopeful it will be less than the 500 lost posts suggested, although further cuts are expected at advertiser-funded BBC World News, where failings should concern director-general Tony Hall as he tries to put the BBC on a more commercial footing.

To its credit, Newsnight didn’t shy away from the paedophile story, teasing out an historic Michael Cockerell film from 1995 in which a former Tory whip revealed he was asked to cover up for miscreant MPs who might be involved in “scandal involving small boys” or other wrongdoing. It was a shame the BBC2 show was then let down by the dopey deputy chairman of Ukip, Neil Hamilton, who named the wrong MP when discussing “bondage and sadomasochism clubs” in a live interview last Tuesday. Newsnight had to apologise, again.

I wonder what Sir Alan Moses makes of it all, as he prepares to start work as chair of the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) in September. The former Appeal Court judge, who will address the Society of Editors conference in November, was apparently deeply unimpressed with the many newspapers who suggested that the acquittal of several hacking trial defendants, including Rebekah Brooks, meant the prosecution had been a waste of public money.

But many years ago, working at The Sunday Times, I covered the Matrix Churchill trial when Moses led the Customs prosecution of three power tools executives accused of supplying arms to Saddam Hussein. He was let down by the minister Alan Clark, who famously admitted to being “economical with the actualité” and – sensationally – caused the trial to collapse.

So I suspect the new Ipso chair rather enjoys seeing politicians held to account.

BT Sport looks to Chelsea glamour

The signing of Jose Mourinho by BT Sport has added needle to the  broadcaster’s rivalry with BSkyB ahead  of the new Premier League season.

The “Special One” made a pointed comment about BT Sport being “not  afraid to challenge”. Sky has always thought of itself as the game-changing broadcaster that likes to shake up the status quo.

As Chelsea manager, the new “BT Sport ambassador” will be kept away from Premier League coverage, but he is expected to do punditry on European games that don’t directly involve the Stamford Bridge club.

BT Sport needs him. Sky’s Gary Neville was the class act among the television analysts last season and formed a good partnership with his old Liverpool rival Jamie Carragher.

The chess contest of match “picks” is taking longer this year. Last season, BT Sport opted for early games, leaving Sky to dominate the title run-in. It might not be too late for Mourinho to give strategic advice on which games to cover.

Media Talk haunts ‘Guardian’

For eight years, The Guardian ran a podcast called “Media Talk” in which various people – mostly from The Guardian – discussed industry news and gossip from the previous week. It stuck loyally to the paper’s agenda on contentious stories and gleefully trashed its rivals.

But The Guardian – which once had an “audio editor” – has lost interest in podcasting, believing audiences prefer video. So, on 30 May, it closed the project down.

Yet, awkwardly for the paper, it has come back to life. A Kickstarter crowd-funding initiative launched by the podcast’s producer Matt Hill has raised the £9,000 needed to make “The Media Podcast” independently for a year. The new service is “not affiliated to The Guardian in any way”, it stresses to would-be backers.

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