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Stephen Glover: A rather modest retraction for a story that has changed so much

Media Studies: If The Guardian had not published its story, the News of the World might not have been closed

Stephen Glover
Monday 12 December 2011 01:00 GMT

Long experience has taught me that The Guardian does not like admitting it has got things wrong, so I am not at all surprised by the way it has handled a correction to what may well be the most explosive and influential story it has ever published. On 4 July, the paper "splashed" with the revelation that the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked by the News of the World, or by the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire acting on its behalf. According to The Guardian: "The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly's disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result, relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might be alive."

This story created uproar in the Commons and the media. David Cameron described the paper's behaviour as "disgusting". Two days later he announced the Leveson Inquiry. Three days later Rupert Murdoch said the News of the World would close. On 13 July he was forced to pull the plug on his bid for the 61 per cent of BSkyB he did not own. It is not too much to say that that The Guardian's story of 4 July transformed what had been a discreditable saga about the Sunday tabloid's phone hacking of celebrities into a sensational scandal.

A pity, then, that it was not true. Two days ago The Guardian posted this correction at the top of its online version of the 4 July story: "Evidence secured by the police following the publication of this article has established that the News of the World was not responsible for the deletion of voicemails which caused Milly Dowler's parents to have false hope that she was alive." Perhaps you should read that again. The paper's central and most damaging allegation against the News of the World turns out not to have been correct.

Some people might think The Guardian owes us a more comprehensive apology than a brief posting at the top of an online article published five months ago. But the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, does not like apologising since to do so would suggest that, even though he inhabits the upper reaches of Mount Olympus, he is made of flesh and blood like the rest of us. He did carry a story in Saturday's paper under the headline "Police logs raise questions over the deletion of Dowler voicemails", but it did not contain the blunt admission of error conveyed by the posting, far less an apology. Ironically, it was co-written by Nick Davies, one of the co-authors of the 4 July article.

Without offering any proof, Saturday's piece maintained that News of the World journalists did listen to Milly Dowler's voicemails, and suggests that by doing so they "probably were responsible for deleting some of the missing girl's messages" which, unbeknownst to them, automatically deleted themselves 72 hours after being listened to. If this allegation is true – and, coming as it does from the same police sources behind the 4 July story, and repeated as it is by Nick Davies, it should be treated with caution – it is still some way from the original suggestion that the News of the World or Glenn Mulcaire deliberately deleted Milly's voicemails.

Does any of this matter? The News of the World still has a great deal to answer for. It stands accused of hacking the mobile phones of about 800 people, although this figure, released by the police on Saturday, is considerably less than was once thought. But I would suggest that, if The Guardian had not published its inaccurate 4 July allegation in the sensational terms it did, events could have gone differently. The Sunday red-top might not have been closed by a panic-stricken Rupert Murdoch, and the Leveson Inquiry might not have been set up by an equally panic-stricken David Cameron.

Needless to say, it is too late to stop the caravan now, but I wonder whether, as he lies awake at night, Mr Rusbridger occasionally examines his conscience. If, as seems not unlikely, we end up with a less free press, it may at least in part be the result of The Guardian making an incorrect allegation which it has now furtively retracted.

China TV's global expansion plans put Britain to shame

More information is emerging about the expansion plans of China Central Television (CCTV), which I wrote about four weeks ago. Apart from setting up new offices in New York and Nairobi, CCTV is said to plan new hubs in South America, the Middle-East and Europe. Within five years it will increase its overseas staff tenfold.

The thinking behind this huge growth was explained in an essay last month in a Chinese journal called Leadership Decision-Making Information. "Global competition nowadays is not just political and economic, but cultural... Countries that take the dominant position in cultural development and own strong cultural soft power are the ones that gain the initiative in fierce international competition," the essay argued.

How true – and how tragic that, as China expands its "soft power", the UK should be cutting the budget of the internationally respected BBC World Service by 16 per cent over five years, scaling back or abandoning language services. This I could just about bear in the name of regrettable house-keeping in hard times, were it not for the fact the Government has investments in China it could liquidate.

The Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), which is responsible to the Department for International Development, has invested $521m (£332m) in Chinese businesses, and has committed a further $134m. Through Actis China Fund III (a private equity firm), CDC invested $50m in 2008 in a restaurant chain called Xiabu Xiabu which then had 60 outlets, and will have 200-plus by the end of the year. Though this investment has nothing to do with aid, it is classified as such.

I don't know the present value of CDC's investment in Xiabu Xiabu, but it must be more than enough to make good the cut in the World Service's budget which the Chinese are exploiting. If we had rational, joined-up government, we would stop owning restaurants in China, and allow the BBC World Service to continue to do what it is so good at.

Too elegant? Too original? Or too old?

Could someone explain to me why The Guardian is dispensing with the columnar services of my friend Alexander Chancellor, former editor of The Spectator and founding editor of this newspaper's Saturday magazine, as well as its first US editor? Is it that his columns are too elegant and original? Or is he simply being penalised for being 71?

Ian Burrell's column returns next week

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