News Analysis

Monday 1 September 2014

James Downey: A wronged Tory Lord might be just the man to put manners on the Twitterati

Published 17/11/2012 | 05:00

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LORD McAlpine, one-time close adviser to Margaret Thatcher, might seem an unlikely hero, and not a person to be pitied. He is immensely rich and successful and a former fundraiser for the British Conservative Party. But he deserves praise – and sympathy – for what he has done and said this week.

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He has made a settlement with the BBC for a gross libel perpetrated on him in the course of the Jimmy Savile scandal. That, however, is the least of it.

His solicitor, Andrew Reid, has employed experts to track down some of the thousands of people who tweeted or retweeted similarly defamatory comments. You may not have known that such an operation was possible. It certainly would not be possible for anyone who lacks the vast resources that Lord McAlpine and Mr Reid have at their disposal.

We can count ourselves lucky that the tweeters chose to libel a very rich man who does have such resources. His response will teach them a lesson: that the "social media", like the rest of us, can be held to account.

Any satisfaction he may derive from the operation will be flawed. He has said himself that the stain on his reputation will never be fully removed. But the mainstream media can take some comfort from the prospect of a move to subject the "social media" to the legal sanctions and regulation which apply to ourselves.

That, however, does nothing to ease the crisis raging within one of the most respected broadcasting organisations in the world.

Jonathan Dimbleby says that a "witch-hunt" is in progress against the BBC. He's right, and it isn't new. The corporation has long been subjected to outrageous attacks by right-wing newspapers, Tory MPs and pressure groups. It has usually fought them off.

But this time it's different. The corporation's sympathisers, and lovers of free speech more widely, can only view with horror the story of what appears, on the evidence so far available, to be a 30-year cover-up of Jimmy Savile's crimes.

How could it have happened? For all the prejudiced attacks launched against it, the BBC until very recently was famous for accuracy and high principle. It believed in public service. Its first chief, Lord Reith, was a bureaucrat who put the fictional Sir Humphrey in the shade.

Part of the answer must lie in hubris and excessive self-regard. It's very dangerous for an organisation to be run by executives who think they can do no wrong.

Another part must surely relate to the ferocity of the competition. Broadcasters are obsessed with ratings. The result has been sadly visible for many years in the "dumbing down" phenomenon, and the BBC has been among the worst offenders. Even BBC2 standards have declined.

There is nothing wrong with popular programmes, and viewers willing to try to pick their way through the maze of the financial crisis can watch and hear the brilliant Robert Peston. But programme makers under the ever-increasing pressures of the present age must be tempted to take risks with facts as well as comment.

It is tempting to make comparisons with the most shocking mistake made by RTE.

RTE, like the BBC, suffers from excessive self-regard, and the defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds was perpetrated by a prestige programme, as was the defamation of Lord McAlpine by 'Newsnight'.

In the RTE case, however, there were unique aspects. The programme went ahead despite an offer by Fr Reynolds to undergo a paternity test – which would have shown, and did show, that the allegation had no foundation. Apparently the programme team simply could not bring themselves to believe they had got it wrong.

We still do not know enough about this affair. The report by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was inadequate. Who bore, or should have borne, the ultimate responsibility?

Very similar questions arise in the BBC case. The chief executive has resigned. Now there are calls for the resignation of BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten. Undoubtedly there are political aspects to this.

Lord Patten, a former Conservative cabinet minister, is a hate figure for some of the party's right wing. His enemies think he has "gone native", like other former Tory ministers in the past. Can he survive in the present dire circumstances and resist the pressure for more political control?

Issues like these are highly relevant in Ireland. This week brought the beginning of a debate on abortion. It could be as passionate as the 1983 campaign. The mainstream media will be accused of bias again.

For social media, there should be proper regulation. But the Irish print media already have an excellent system. It protects free speech with due redress for errors. As for television, it does not need more regulation. It needs more professionalism and willingness to make amends for its mistakes – and a bit of humility.

Irish Independent

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