Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Savile hides Beeb's other crimes against journalism

Beeb boob: the BBC’s obsequiousness over Royals like Prince Charles is as bad as its journalistic failings over Savile

The BBC dithered and fumbled before producing a (somewhat implausible) explanation of the decision not to run Liz McKean's Newsnight story on Jimmy Savile's decades-long history of child sex abuse.

But it was in like flint when security correspondent Frank Gardner revealed that the Queen had lobbied for the arrest of a controversial figure who had not at the time been charged with an arrestable offence.

Gardner recalled on Radio 4's Today programme that the Queen had told him some years previously that she had asked the Home Secretary why the Muslim cleric and notorious homophobe Abu Hamza was still on the loose: "Surely this man must have broken some laws? Why is he still at large?"

By lunchtime the same day - September 25 - Beeb bosses were beating their breasts and crying contrition.

"This morning on the Today programme our correspondent Frank Gardner revealed details of a private conversation which took place some years ago with the Queen... The BBC and Frank deeply regret this breach of confidence. It was wholly inappropriate. Frank is extremely sorry for the embarrassment caused and has apologised to the palace."

Nothing like this would ever happen again, the corporation promised. That is, if a similar story were to come their way in future, they'd suppress it.

In contrast, in relation to the Savile affair, the line is that no similar story will ever be suppressed again.

The fact that the Queen had pushed a politician to explain why a named person was not behind bars was a significant story. This was the key characteristic which it shared - even if it differed in all other respects - with Jimmy Savile's brute behaviour.

The BBC had ditched principle in deference to the Royals. And there's hardly a word about it.

The reason for the silence is that the practice of keeping the people in ignorance of the real views of the Royals has been in place for so long that it's widely assumed to be a legal, or constitutional, imperative. But it's nothing of the sort.

In its present, all-encompassing form it dates not from the foundation of the monarchy, nor even from the ascension to the throne of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas (Windsors). It is a 20th-century conceit and amounts to a conspiracy of silence.

The timidity with which it's accepted testifies to the role of the mainstream media in shoring up the existing order.

As a colleague at The Independent not unfriendly to the Royals observed last week: "Dear though she is, if she's mouthing off to Cabinet ministers and journalists about matters of policy, I should like to know about it. An unelected figurehead is one thing. An unelected closet demagogue is another."

The next monarch - if the institution survives - will fit even more closely than his mother into the category of closet demagogue. Last week, the Attorney General for England and Wales, Dominic Grieve, intervened to overturn a ruling by an Information Tribunal that the people have the right to know what pressure Prince Charles has been bringing on Government ministers and towards what end.

Mr Grieve explained that giving the public access to this information might jeopardise Charles's ability to perform the role of King; the implication being that, if the detail of his political lobbying were generally known, he'd find it harder to win acceptance as ruler. It is difficult to think of a better, or more compelling, reason to publish the information as speedily and widely as modern technology allows.

But in the stupefied world where Royals are revered, it's regarded as a reason for squashing the truth.

The tribunal ruling referred to 27 letters sent to seven ministers over a seven-month period.

The Attorney General told the Commons that these contain "particularly frank" expressions of Charles' "most deeply-held personal views and beliefs".

We know some of Charles' beliefs: he's in favour of fox hunting, has dreadful taste in architecture and regards homeopathy as a branch of medical science.

In what way and in what terms has he been pressing ministers to reflect these beliefs in policy decisions?

Has he lobbied against the Freedom of Information Act? Was Mr Grieve's action in removing the Royals from the remit of the Act the result of a demand from Charles?

The British people are not allowed to know. This isn't democracy. This is feudalism. And most of the media appear to have no problem with it.

BBC bosses deserve all the stick they are getting for their shambolic - and maybe worse - handling of the Savile affair.

But there is a perspective in which their open embrace of censorship in relation to the Royals is a more egregious offence against journalism.

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