Exclusive: the documents that reveal John Major and Downing Street’s 1995 ‘stop Murdoch plan’.

This article appears in the September 2019 edition of the Royal Television Society journal ‘Television’:

During these past twelve months Rupert Murdoch has been only half the man in the UK he used to be. But that’s only by one measure – Ofcoms share of referenceswhich calculates which news sources are consumed across different media. It was a year ago, September 2018, when the 87 year olds long association with BSkyB came to an end. When his new ally Disney was defeated in a bidding war by Comcast for the shares in BSkyB which 21st Century Fox did not already own, he left that particular field of battle with £11.6 billion to regroup in the U.S. His News UK company still owns the Times, Sunday Times and Sun newspapers and the Wireless Group. So one of the most successful figures in commercial media for the past two decades hasnt gone away but the perception of his power is undoubtedly diminished.

Part of that perception has always been based on his access to British Prime Ministers, normally through the side or back door of Ten Downing Street but on one memorable occasion in 1995 a PM in waiting,Tony Blair, flew to a News Corporation conference in Australia. Murdoch joked that if this flirtation were ever consummated Tony, I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines – very carefully.

By contrast with the supportive Margaret Thatcher and the flirtatious Tony Blair it is striking to see in Cabinet Office files for 1995 , just released to the National Archives, what one of John Majors officials proposes as ‘’The Stop Murdoch plan. These documents give fascinating insights at a time when Major wanted the political support of The Sun and Murdoch wanted a clear regulatory run to launch digital satellite television.

In the 1993 files there were such details as Major deciding to discourage Cabinet Ministers from attending Rupert Murdochs 1 September jamboree. The aggressive mood in Downing Street was partly explained by the cuttings in the file which chronicle the attacks in the columns of The Sun: Dithering Major, Pigmy PM,not up to the job,1001 reasons why you are such a plonker John, a broken man,a discredited Prime Minister. The then Editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie said he once told Major on the phone I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.

By 1995 two voices told Major all was not lost, there was still a chance Murdoch might yet bring his papers back behind the Conservatives. One was a legendary Murdoch fixer, Lord Woodrow Wyatt, whod earlier been a key go-between with Margaret Thatcher. He wrote to Downing Street informing them that Murdoch is coming round pretty well and certainly does not want a Blair victory, despite his flirting in Australia. John Majors then Press Secretary, Christopher Meyer, later British Ambassador to Washington, copied Wyatts note to the Prime Minister adding that Murdochs papers having given generous space to Blair, have started to hedge their bets.

If the unspoken implication was careful you dont upset him too much on broadcasting matters, there was strong push-back from inside and outside Downing Street. His Private Secretary for Home Affairs, Racheal Reynolds, put forward a cross-media plan to make sure that the 20% limit on ownership of ITN should be enforced and that we should signal our intention to ensure open access to satellite and cable television (the stop Murdochplan). Ms Reynolds, remembered by colleagues as very feisty, also warned against policies which would let the likes of Murdoch become even more powerful.

Reynoldss colleague in the Policy Unit, Dominic Morris, told Major that unless they made digital terrestrial television a success, Mr Murdoch could- eventually- dominate British TV via satellite and his programmes on cable. Morris warned that  that Public interest broadcasting would be pushed into a ghetto. A master of the accessible policy memo throughout a career that later took him to the BBC, ITC and Ofcom, Morris highlighted the importance of conditional access on digital satellite – and how Murdoch could not be allowed to have the complete lockwhich he had on analogue. He asked if the Prime Minister was Content with the above approach?. John Major gave his approval by circling the word Content.

The key battle is for control of the Digital Gateway into the homeargued one other person with direct access to Major, the Director-General of the BBC. We learned from John Birts memoirs of a meeting with Major who was deeply hostile to Murdoch whose papers had been merciless at his expenseand how the PM went on to despair about the growth of satellite and its impact on BritainWhy did the BBC have to collaborate with Sky on sport?.

What the archives now reveal is a letter Birt sent to Major in July 1995 after a dinner with their wives in which he forecast with great foresight the digital revolution which lay ahead and asked How can Murdoch be stopped?. He wrote that the most important of the radical implications of the digital revolution was the monopolistic position in this new digital world that Rupert Murdoch  is poised to win for himself with hardly anyone  seeming to appreciator his game plan. Had Murdoch or his senior executives seen the letter they would probably observed the irony of what they saw as the head of a monopolistic BBC directly lobbying a PM who earlier had lobbied him not to co-operate on sport with BSkyB. In their mind Birt and Murdoch were doing the same thing, trying to develop new markets for their organisations.

All was now set for a meeting between Major and Murdoch on 13 September 1995. Press Secretary Christopher Meyer said We want Murdoch to leave Downing Street convinced that Blair is going to have a real fight on his hands. Rachael Reynolds warned Just be aware if he says what a saviour he is.

There is no account of the actual meeting in the files, but thats not suspicious. About that time I was invited to a one-to-one with Major in the Cabinet Room where he asked what I would like the forthcoming legislation to say about the ownership of ITN. I told him and it duly became law. No record of that seems to exist either.

We can tell that Major wanted to keep lines of direct communication open to Murdoch because when he wrote to him saying how much he had enjoyed their conversation, he sent a further invitation:Norma and I would be delighted if you and Anna could come and have lunch one weekend at Chequers.

In 2016 Rupert Murdoch wrote to the Guardian I have made it a principle all my life never to ask for anything from any prime minister.  In these newly-released files there is no evidence to disprove that. But perhaps he doesnt need to ask, politicians will have taken the trouble to find out what he wants and his executives can do any necessary asking for him. For example after the Murdoch meeting Major arranged for Sam Chisholm of BSkyB to meet the Head of his Policy Unit to discuss encryption and technology.

Eventually Major, following the advice of his Policy Unit and John Birt, imposed some regulatory controls on digital TV gatekeepers. But Prime Ministers can never forget that Murdochs editors always have those large buckets on their desks. Two years later The Sun attacked Majors Government as tired and dividedand proclaimed on the front-page The Sun Backs Blair.

Britain’s fragmented politics and Brexit are challenging the UK’s broadcasters, especially the BBC, as never before

This article appeared first in ‘Television’ the Journal of the Royal Television Society:

 

In May 2018, the top two UK parties, as measured in opinion polls and real votes cast in elections, were Labour and the Conservatives. A year later, they had been displaced by the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats.

One man’s journey during just three of those 12 months helps to illustrate this wacky new world of UK politics. In March 2019, he left one party to help create another, which started with one name, changed to a different one and then changed back. He then joined a third party, saying that he should probably have gone with it in the first place.

You probably have run out of sympathy for Chuka Umunna and his voyage from Labour to the Liberal Democrats via the Independent Group aka Change UK. But spare a thought for broadcasters trying to observe the regulatory requirement for “due impartiality” in these unusual times.

The Ofcom “Digest of evidence of past electoral support and current support”, sent to broadcasters before the European elections to help them make their judgements, contained no mention of the eventual winner, the Brexit Party, which had only just been created.

One respected political observer, Rafael Behr of the Guardian, says the Brexit referendum has turned out to be “a meltdown in the reactor core at the heart of British politics”. Some of the fallout from the continuing fragmentation of British politics has landed on the BBC.

“Dear BBC, you must get the detail right’”

“If BBC News continues to distort and withhold information from viewers there will be trouble,” tweeted Telegraphcolumnist Allison Pearson. “Oh my… has it come to this?’ replied BBC correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. A BBC News executive accused two predecessors who were reviewing the current output of “making a few bob to supplement their pensions as armchair generals”.

The Observer asked: “Is BBC News broken?” The first of its contributors began: “Our national broadcaster has been defeated by Brexit.” Then came the Our Next Prime Ministerdebate, summed up by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland as “a painful hour delivered via a format that featured too much crosstalk and too little cross-examination”.

How exactly did it “come to this” and what’s to be done?

It was as far back as a decade and a half ago that the BBC got its first warning that a UK referendum on the EU would mean trouble for the corporation.

In 2005, an independent panel of outside experts, chaired by Lord Wilson of Dinton, the former cabinet secretary Richard Wilson, was appointed by the then­governors. The panel predicted that “a referendum period makes unconventional demands on broadcasters in that balance consists of giving equal treatment to the Yes and No campaigns, rather than to government and opposition spokespeople”.

The experts forecast that the referendum would “free voters from party affiliations, introduce non-politicians to the political arena and divide the loyalty of parliamentarians”.

The particular referendum they were referring to never actually happened. As it turned out, Britain didn’t need to vote in 2006 on a constitution for Europe because electors in France and the Netherlands stopped the proposed treaty in its tracks.

But when, in 2016, the UK finally did get the chance to vote on Europe the panel’s 2005 prediction that a referendum would “free voters from party affiliations” was immediately validated. Voters now seem to find it easier to identify as leavers or remainers rather than Conservative or Labour.

The impact of the BBC’s 2016 referendum coverage on its reputation was significant. As part of an action plan after the critical report in 2005, the coverage of Europe had been improved by the appointment of a Europe editor, currently the award-winning Katya Adler. The unconscious Europhile mindset had been replaced by a commitment to “deliver to audiences impartial and independent reporting of the campaign, providing them with fair coverage and rigorous scrutiny of the policies and campaigns of all relevant parties and campaign groups”.

Given their past distrust of the BBC’s coverage, the Leave campaign was always going to be cynical and sceptical about this conversion – and remains so to this day. What was more surprising and significant was that the Remain campaigners also turned against the BBC, particularly once they knew they had lost the referendum.

Craig Oliver, who, as David Cameron’s director of communications, oversaw the Remain campaign, said the problem was that the BBC searched for “the perfect symmetry in coverage of Leave and Remain” at the expense of challenging protagonists on the basis of facts.

Others on his side constantly asked why the BBC was not challenging more often the claim that £350m would be released for the NHS. The BBC’s said it had challenged it, but it didn’t have an iconic moment such as Tom Bradby’s ITV confrontation with Boris Johnson in the back of the very bus that bore the claim.

The complainants no longer seemed to trust the corporation. “False equivalence” became their battle cry when leavers were offered the chance to rebut what remainers saw as accepted facts and consensus opinions.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller now believes that “it seems to have got much worse since the EU referendum, this idea at the BBC that you have got to give equal weight to both sides, even if one side is telling a lie”.

Professor Steven Barnett, a long-time supporter of the BBC, was so unhappy with some of its analysis of the Euro elections that he recently tweeted: “Dear BBC News, this is precisely the kind of detail that your reporters are consistently getting wrong and you must get right.”

The BBC’s current view, as stressed in its recent European election guidelines, is that “the election needs to be seen both through the prism of Brexit and through the distinctions of party”.

The corporation has found it difficult to reflect or refract all the political colours of the UK in 2019, and its chief political advisor, Ric Bailey, says there is a “tension between the binary nature of issues such as Brexit and the fragmentation of party political loyalties”.

“‘Broadcasters have more freedom than ever [but] they don’t always take it’”

At the start of my 50 years in broadcasting, the election-time rules were just plain wrong. A committee decided how many election broadcasts each party should have and that became the formula for news coverage. Parties would ring up after each bulletin and argue about every extra 30 seconds they claimed the other side had got. In 1992, I announced that ITN would “throw away the stop watch” and decide the news coverage on news values alone.

Others followed but broadcasters found it difficult to break away from the equation “‘equal time equals balance equals due impartiality”. It doesn’t and shouldn’t. The old rules have fallen away and broadcasters have more freedom than ever to interpret how to achieve due impartiality during and outside elections. They don’t always take it.

At the time of the 2016 referendum the BBC insisted that “news judgements continue to drive editorial decision-making in news-based programmes”. The BBC – and, indeed, all broadcasters – have to keep asserting the primacy of this doctrine over a time-based formula and be bolder in defending it.

Feedback (Credit: BBC)

The head of BBC newsgathering, Jonathan Munro, told the Radio 4 programme Feedback last month that the BBC was now reviewing its approach to election coverage, particularly in the light of the increased use of social media. He called it “an evolution rather than a moment of change”.

There are bound to be different views inside the BBC about the speed of that evolution, but innovations such as Reality Check and Brexitcast show that there are new ways in which audiences can check facts and taste the many and varied flavours of UK politics. Broadcasters need to seize these or face more hostility as Brexit continues to dominate the news agenda.

Beware any unintended consequences of the online harms white paper

This article was published in the May 2019 edition of the Royal Television Society magazine ‘Television’ .

In May 2018 the Government announced that later in that year it would publish a full White Paper ‘that will cover the full range of online harms’. In September 2018 with no publication date yet in sight the Financial Times reported that ministers were grappling with how to force technology companies to take more responsibility for online content. Government intervention was said to be part of an international trend, Germany had introduced fines for platforms that fail to remove hate speech within 24 hours, but the UK would be the first in Europe to go further. A joint letter, signed by the heads of the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4, and BT, had argued for independent regulatory oversight of content posted on social media platforms. However the FT reported ‘Stewart Purvis, a former Ofcom official, said he has yet to see a workable proposal for increasing oversight of social media companies’. 

A year on we finally have the White Paper and I, for one, think the time has been well spent by DCMS and the Home Office on proposals that could indeed be workable. But the focus has moved to become whether their plan will have unintended consequences which will limit freedom of speech.

The 98 page White Paper ‘Online Harms’ goes further than any previous British administration has dared to tread. ‘This is a complex and novel area for public policy’ is an elegant understatement. Politicians who once seemed in awe of the tech companies now threaten todisrupt the business activities of a non-compliant company’ even those based outside the UK. The global giants who I once witnessed showing open contempt for national governments could be fined or banned, their directors held criminally liable. The days when the tech giants said they were ‘mere conduits’ for the material they distributed seem long gone. 

The political momentum for change became unstoppable the month before publication after what the White Paper calls ‘a co-ordinated cross-platform effort to generate maximum reach of footage of the attack’ in mosques in New Zealand when the gunman live-streamed his shooting on Facebook Live.

The document is full of good reasons why something has to be done. No less than 23 ‘online harms in scope’ are listed, child exploitation and distributing terrorist content top the list. But many of the harms on the list are already illegal and no new offences are created. Specifically, as Paul Herbert of Goodman Derrick has pointed out, the Government has decided against creating any new offences for hosting illegal or harmful content which he says would have been a ’radical challenge’. No bloggers will go to jail unless it is for something that is already illegal. 

Instead the White Paper targets companies like Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube who allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. They would have a new statutory duty of care to take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. A new independent regulator, mostly funded by industry, would enforce it. This approach has been generally welcomed. The tech companies are no longer pushing back against new legal obligations as forcefully as they used to, in public at least. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg told Congress in April that he would welcome regulation, but with the rider that it had to be the right regulation. 

The public debate about what is the right regulation for the UK has been mostly about the possibility of unintended consequences. Comparisons with North Korea-style censorship have been littered around rather carelessly but the Society of Editors correctly focused on the potential weak spot in the Government’s ideas; ‘Where the white paper moves into areas concerning the spread of misinformation – so called fake news – we should all be concerned. Who will decide what is fake news?’ 

In his reply the DCMS Secretary, Jeremy Wright, accepted that the breadth of the proposals means they will affect ‘organisations of all sizes including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines’. But seeking to reassure the older media he said ’Journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework’. The proposed new independent regulator ‘will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online’. Where services are ‘already well regulated’ by bodies like the press self-regulators IPSO and IMPRESS Mr Wright says ‘we will not duplicate those efforts’.

In Whitehall’s mind the news world seems to divide between the ‘real journalism’ that comes from what we used to call Fleet Street and the ’fake journalism’ emanating from The Internet Research Agency of 55 Savushkina Street, Saint Petersburg. If only life was so simple.The world has moved on from the days when only journalists did journalism. In the White Paper there are moments when you wonder if the drafters understand how journalists and non-journalists alike use social media to distribute news and opinion, how comment sections on sites can be as important as the original ‘journalistic’ article.

For an example of the simplistic approach take paragraph 4 of the section of the White Paper headed ‘The Problem’: 

‘Social media platforms use algorithms which can lead to ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’, where a user is presented with only one type of content instead of seeing a range of voices and opinions.This can promote disinformation by ensuring that users do not see rebuttals or other sources that may disagree’ 

What about the thousands of single-minded and occasionally bloody-minded partisan voices offering independent commentary which are an essential part of the internet. They do not seek to offer a balanced view of the world and readers would not expect a right to reply. This paragraph almost sounds like an echo from last year’s recommendation from the otherwise well-informed Digital,Culture, Media and Sport Committee that the Government use the Ofcom rules on impartiality to set standards for online content.

To offset any concerns about possible Government restrictions on ‘freedom of expression online’ and ‘a free, open and secure internet’ there are reassurances in the White Paper that seek to go beyond fine words. The independent regulator – either Ofcom or a new body – will be told to focus on protecting users from the most harmful content ‘not judging what is true or not’. If the regulator is to be Ofcom we can be sure their experience in broadcasting will be valuable in making the expected ‘difficult judgement calls’.

Ian Murray of the Society of Editors said he welcomed the reassurance from DCMS ‘but we must always be ever vigilant of the laws of unintended consequences and what some politicians or a future government may do to use online harms legislation to restrict freedom of speech’.

There is now a consultation period until 1st July and vigilance will indeed be needed to ensure that when legislation is finally presented to parliament the unintended, the unanticipated and the unforeseen do not flow from what is otherwise a sensible, practical and important law.

What going back to football reporting has taught me about the state of the UK’s local news media and what it means for local democracy

The Cairncross Review was set up by the UK Government to consider ‘how to sustain the production and distribution of high-quality journalism in a changing market’. They invited those interested to submit evidence, so I did .This is my evidence:

I was a BBC News Trainee, an ITN producer who became the Editor and Chief Executive, a senior Ofcom executive who oversaw a review of the UK’s local media, a Professor of Journalism at City University who wrote a book on ethics and an adviser to the DCMS on the BBC Charter Review. I am currently a Non-Executive Director of Channel Four, an author and a football reporter for the Brentford Supporters Trust known as ‘Bees United’. I am submitting a short case study on my experiences at Brentford Football Club together with my thoughts on the wider implications, informed by my earlier career.

Brentford Football Club is in the top ten of the English Football League (EFL), the third biggest league in Europe as measured by attendance. The club is widely admired for its innovative approach and this season is considered a candidate for promotion to the Premier League. A new stadium is being built to help attract further support across the club’s catchment area which is the half a million people who live in the London Boroughs of Hounslow and Ealing. Yet when the club plays matches and holds its weekly press conference sometimes nobody from the local media turns up to report them. Together with two other season-ticket holders who are also former journalists, we decided that if the country’s big local media groups couldn’t be relied on to cover the Brentford story, then we would. As three unpaid volunteers we have now covered every match and media event so far this season posting text, stills, audio and video and building up our own following online and in social media.

This situation came about in the spring of 2018 when what was then called Trinity Mirror announced a series of redundancies and one of them was the reporter who covered every Brentford match and press conference for the Hounslow Chronicle and the GetWestLondon website. Instead another reporter was tasked with covering a number of clubs in West and East London, many of whom, of course, play at the same time on a Saturday. During the pre-season it became clear that the presence of Trinity Mirror (by now renamed Reach) was unpredictable, sometimes they would be present in some form but often not. If no local reporter turned up to question the club’s Head Coach a member of the in-house communications team would do it instead.

After the first Championship match of the season at Brentford, a former Fleet Street news editor wrote an article ‘Brentford’s local press coverage has become yesterday’s news’ on a fan website.https://beesotted.com/brentfords-local-press-coverage-has-become-yesterdays-news/ . Jim Levack wrote:  ‘For the first time in the club’s professional league existence there was no local media representation at the game…It’s a damning indictment of the lack of investment in local and regional media, but also a tragedy for the club and its fans at a time when the side’s potential has never been greater.”

Reach decided to reply to the criticism https://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2018/news/publisher-defends-coverage-of-football-club-despite-claim-no-reporter-at-game/ It said it had provided four separate pieces of coverage on the match via its football news website http://www.football.london

What is significant is what Reach did not say, they did not say they had been present at the game. The industry website ‘Hold the Front Page’ reported that it had ‘asked for further clarification on whether a reporter was physically present at Griffin Park but Reach has yet to respond’. Perhaps reacting to this criticism, Reach has since been represented at some events in some form but rarely the same person from the same part of Reach, which now publishes  everything from local media in West London to the Daily Mirror and Daily Express.

It is technically possible for anybody to provide coverage of Brentford FC’s press conferences without ever attending by viewing the videos which the club posts on its website. It is technically possible to cover a match without attending by monitoring websites, social media or audio services. In many ways the digital world creates opportunities for accessing content without attending events. But from a reporter’s point of view it is absolutely not the same as being there.

We in the Bees United reporting team know that to be true because by attending we get to ask our own questions, some of which the club’s representatives have chosen not to ask, we get our own stories, we talk to our own sources and witness events for ourselves. And of course some of what we ask and report gets picked up and repeated by Reach on their website http://www.football.london

So, one might ask, if a group of volunteers step in and fill a gap left by traditional local media surely that is a success for ‘a new model’? In truth it is a fragile model, that depends on the commitment of volunteers, their availability and their ability to fund themselves.

Apply the lessons of this case study to coverage of local events which may be of less interest to the local public but of more truly public interest. Imagine a local council press conference where only the in-house communications team turn up with, at best, a local blogger alongside them.

Brentford Football Club have wondered whether it is worth putting their Head Coach up for questions if nobody from the local media turns up. The read across from this to local councils is why would the leader of a council put aside time to be available to an audience of potentially nobody when an easier alternative is to work out their own questions and answers with their own in-house communications team.

A physical presence at an event is not just a ‘nice to have’. It is an essential part of our local democracy. That is why when I was one of the advisers to DCMS on the BBC Charter Renewal I supported the principle of a publicly funded intervention to increase the number of reporters covering public bodies, which eventually became the BBC Local Partnership. However I have some doubts about the execution of this scheme.

These are:

  1. The funding has overwhelmingly gone to legacy players in the local media e.g Reach, Johnston Press and Newsquest with little support going to innovative new models in news-gathering.
  2. The legacy players have an incentive to use that funding to subsidise existing staff rather than appoint new staff.They also have an incentive to prevent funding going to new players who they see as competitors.
  3. There appears to be no outside scrutiny of how the BBC and the NMA operate the scheme using licence-fee money.
  4. Access to the content created under the scheme seems unreasonably limited to legacy media.

I therefore suggest:

1.The BBC should commission a thorough review and audit of the scheme by an outside body which should be published. In particular there should be detailed scrutiny of whether the 150 reporters are truly additional to the staffing of the news organisations within which they work or has the licence fee money been used to pay people those organisations already employed.

2. After that review is published, DCMS should ask Ofcom, the regulator of the BBC , to take specific oversight of the partnership scheme and to publish its own findings each year.

3. Given that companies such as Facebook have privately inquired (see Alan Rusbridger’s recent book) as to whether they can help provide funding to schemes which offset some of the impact of their success, thought needs to be given to how such private or philanthropic funding can be fed into public interventions such as the BBC Local Partnership scheme.

4.Once the review of the existing scheme has taken place, the oversight by Ofcom has been established and a mechanism for adding non licence-fee money has been found, this scheme has the potential to increase further the number of reporters on the ground asking the right questions on behalf of citizens and  sharing the content they create as widely as possible. Extra funding could be converted into extra coverage, extending the scheme to provide greater public access to reports of courts and inquests.

‘Today it doesn’t look like such a rubbish strategy’: Alan Rusbridger feels ‘vindicated’ after the ‘frightening’ moment that cost him the Chair of the Scott Trust.

On 10th September 2018 the Media Society held an event in London titled ‘Alan Rusbridger in conversation with Stewart Purvis’. This is my blog about that conversation, the audio is available in a Media Society podcast at https://www.mixcloud.com/themediasociety/alan-rusbridger-discusses-his-new-book-with-stuart-purvis/

Alan Rusbridger has written a hell of a good book about journalism; ‘Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now’ based on the first two decades of digital disruption which coincided with his time as Editor of the Guardian. 

Don’t got to it looking for simple solutions for the problems he outlines. One reviewer, Peter Wilby in the New Statesman, counted no fewer than 554 question marks among the 442 pages of Rusbridger’s book.

And don’t expect any mention of the period after his departure from the Guardian when, in the words of the New York Times at the time; ‘ he was cast as a negligent manager who had saddled the paper with a slew of problems’. The invitation for him to return to the Guardian family as the Chairman of its owner, the Scott Trust, was withdrawn. Another reviewer of the book, Robert Kaiser in the Financial Times, says that Rusbridger’s ‘awkward farewell to the institution he joined in 1979 isn’t mentioned in Breaking News — an odd but certainly diplomatic omission’.

After ten or so interviews into his book promotion itinerary nobody, it seemed, had asked Alan about this period in his life. So when I found myself ‘In Conversation with Alan Rusbridger’ before a full house in the Soho Bar of the Groucho Club in London, I thought I would.

First we talked about his big moments in journalism – defeating Jonathan Aitken in a libel case by a piece of evidence discovered at the very last minute without which his career may have came to a sudden halt, supporting Nick Davies through his revelations about phone-hacking and how Rebekah Brooks had once predicted the saga would end with Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy’, how ‘everything about dealing with Julian Assange was difficult’ when working together on the Wikileaks release of American diplomatic cables and, perhaps the Pulitzer Prize winning climax, Edward Snowden’s story told to two Guardian journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room ‘cluttered with unwashed clothes and half-eaten hotel food’ and how two GCHQ technicians came to the Guardian to ensure the destruction of the London copy of Snowden’s electronic documents knowing full well that there was another copy in the States.

We talked too about what we wrote after his first encounter with the internet in 1994: ‘fascinating, intoxicating…it is also crowded out with bores, nutters, fanatics and middle managers from Minnesota who want the world to see their home page and CV’.

Which brought us, inevitably, to the chapter titled ‘The Money Question’, and the strategy of ‘reach before revenue’, building an audience not just in the UK but worldwide that would eventually produce advertising which would pay for the content. This meant being free,‘open’ is the word he prefers, and relying in the meantime  on ‘second-hand car sales’, the profits from Autotrader which funded the Scott Trust, the owners of the Guardian.

In 2014 the Guardian Media Group (GMG) sold its last remaining stake in Autotrader and the Guardian reported the sale proceeds, coupled with GMG’s existing cash and investment fund…are expected to provide financial support for the Guardian, Observer and theguardian.com website for at least 30 years’. Alan Rusbridger himself wrote ‘Let’s call the eventual endowment approaching £1 billion in rough terms—give or take’. 

I took this up in our conversation;

SP At the time did you think a billion pounds would be enough?

AR ‘No idea…none of us had any idea, must be lots of people in this room who work in the media who still have no idea, it was impossible to say’.

In May 2015 he signed off as Editor of-in-Chief of the Guardian. He writes in his book ‘Vine (Kath Viner the new Editor) and Pemsel (David Pemsel the new Chief Executive of GMG) had the safety net of more money in the bank than any Guardian editor of business manager in history could have dreamed of’. 

It had been suggested that he should become the Chairman of the Scott Trust but it was agreed that  he would not take over as immediately. He would take up his post in Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall, which would allow Kath Viner a year to establish herself. He would then return as Chair of the Scott Trust in September 2016, supervising his successor.

By March 2016 Facebook and Google had completed eating the first course of everybody else’s lunch, Guardian Media Group (GMG) was burning cash at the rate of £72 million a year, and at that burn rate it was estimated that the endowment that was meant to last at least 30 years might last for five or six. 100 jobs were earmarked to be cut from the GMG editorial workforce and 150 from commercial.

The New York Times wrote of this period; ‘Support for Mr Rusbridger suddenly shifted as he was cast as a negligent manager who had saddled the paper with a slew of problems’.

I asked him ‘Was that fair?

‘Well I am sure it looked like that at the time. Where we are today, we had a strategy agreed by all the boards about five years ago, it is basically the same strategy today. It was to invest in journalism, to be international, to remain open, not to have a pay wall, and I had set up this membership  scheme which was the idea of trying to go to readers and ask them -on a kind of NPR model -in order to pay for this and keep it open…That strategy hasn’t changed. I read now that the Guardian is going to break even this year and there is still a billion pounds in the bank. So I think today that it doesn’t quite look like such a rubbish strategy but there was a frightening point I concede. The year I left I think they were anticipating a hundred million in digital revenues which we wouldn’t have got had we not had the foresight to invest in digital and that money fell short by 20 million, money just didn’t come in. So I can see that that was a frightening time’.

The great irony about this period is that during the phone-hacking saga there had been threats to Rusbridger from the tabloid media but the real damage to his reputation now came from leaks from inside his own old newspaper plus articles in places like the FT and from people like former Guardian contributor Michael Wollf, later of ‘Fire and Fury’ fame, who wrote- amongst other things- that his former Editor  had ‘no enthusiasm for Americans, all of whom you seemed to regard as either hopeless children or hapless vulgarians’.

Kath Viner who had not been Rusbridger’s preference for his successor as Editor-in-Chief, went to see him and asked him not to take up the the chair of the Scott Trust that autumn. Rusbridger would later announce he would not take up the post because Kath and David (Pemsel) clearly believe they would like to plot a route into the future with a new chair and I understand their reasoning.’ But I put it to him that after Kath Viner asked him to stand down it took a long time for him to agree.

AR Well it was a curious period and I’ve spoken to people about it since, we’re all friends, as I say I can see that it seemed frightening. Kath and David were both new in their jobs and the thing that you mention about not being in charge of your successor, I completely get that, so I understand it. I  mean I haven’t even written about this in the book because life has moved on and it’s all fine .

SP I think one reviewer called it ‘a diplomatic omission’.

AR I didn’t set out to write that kind of memoir. Thinking about it today, as I said, the strategy has not changed, it’s the same strategy, everything is about to break even and there’s still a billion pounds in the bank so I hope people are generous enough to think that actually maybe in a world in which everything does go up and down and anybody who works in any kind of media company except for the BBC-that was a cheap dig but the BBC does have a reasonably stable funding model. But if you are reliant on the kind of funding models that anybody out there has to rely on, then you will have good years and bad years….In these reviews they all say he was a hopeless business manager but the important bit is that they all say that the Guardian was brilliant under his editorship and that to me is the most important thing.

During the Q and A with the audience Rusbridger was asked if there had ever been deep divisions inside the Guardian about whether or not to put up a pay wall. He said there hadn’t, there had never been any pressure from the board to do that. ‘It wasn’t that here was this pampered editor trying to do this hopelessly uncommercial thing’. He pointed out ‘now, don’t take my word for it, it is on the public record, the Guardian is saying ‘we can make the sums work’ so I think in this world you need a bit more patience’.

I then summed up:

SP It sounds as if these decisions may have been made in confusion and with an inability to predict the future but actually it sounds as if you feel vindicated by the way it has turned out?

AR ‘I do,yeah… By the way that’s not to decry the work that Katherine and David have done, they’ve taken some tough decisions and they have done sone restructuring. 

In his book Rusbridger writes that Viner had ‘a tough introduction to the life of editing’ and that ‘it was clear that severe belt-tightening was going to be needed -and was doubtless overdue’.

Two footnotes: 

The first concerns the footnotes to the book. Rusbridger uses these to put on record some points about David Pemsel’s time in the marketing and commercial departments before he became CEO which I can only decode as meaning this was the man who made the digital advertising forecasts, this was the man who said we were ‘financially secure’.

The other concerns the Observer newspaper. On page 32 Rusbridger writes of the paper’s ‘distinguished history’ but that’s the only time in the book where he says anything remotely positive about the Observer. Much more common are references such as ‘a modest investment of £200,000 in digital was dwarfed by an additional £6 million cash injection into the Observer’ and ‘The Observer was losing £7 for every pound lost on the Guardian or its website’.

Ofcom’s dilemma over Putin, RT and the Salisbury poisonings

This article appears in the July/August edition of the Royal Television Society magazine ‘Television’.

A newly appointed boss is addressing journalists gathered in the newsroom. They only know him as an outspoken TV presenter with strong links to their government. He tells them: ‘the time of detached, unbiased journalism is over. Objectivity is a myth forced upon us. Editorial policy will be based on the love of our country’.

When a journalist in his audience tries to differentiate between ‘country’ and ‘government’, his new boss tells him with more than a hint of menace : ‘Let me give you some advice. If you are planning any subversive activities I can tell you now that goes right against my plan’.

Such is the state of the world that you can imagine this happening in many countries, including, extraordinarily, the USA. The least surprising explanation is that this scene was made in Moscow, shot by a journalist on his phone in 2013 and now part of a documentary ‘Our New President’ which had its UK premiere at the Sheffield Doc/Fest this year.

Dmitry Kiselyov took up his new role when Vladimir Putin merged the Kremlin’s news agency and radio station into a company called Rossiya Segodnya, which translates as ‘Russia Today’. Its sister news organisation is the other Russia Today, the TV news channel now known as ‘RT’, and they share an editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan.

So what does a British regulator make of a TV channel which transmits across the UK being openly owned by the same state that, according to the British Prime Minister, poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. And how does ‘objectivity is a myth’ fit with the British requirement for ‘due impartiality and due accuracy’. The answers, based on the past few months, are that these are particularly difficult areas for Ofcom to navigate.

On 13th March when Theresa May gave Vladimir Putin until midnight to explain how the former spy was poisoned, Ofcom said ‘should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the UK, we would consider this relevant to our ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper’ to hold its Ofcom broadcasting licence. The UK Government did subsequently decide that there was ‘an unlawful use of force’ by Russia but a month later Ofcom had gone decidedly cool on linking a state’s actions with its ownership of an Ofcom licence .

‘It would be inappropriate for Ofcom always to place decisive weight’ on any act which a  state committed. It was ‘not possible or appropriate for us to seek to reach an independent determination on the events in Salisbury’. Instead Ofcom preferred to consider RT’s ‘broadcasting conduct’, was ‘intensively’ monitoring RT’s output and as it happened seven new investigations into due impartiality were ready to begin. ‘Since the events in Salisbury we have observed a significant increase in the number of programmes on the RT service that warrant investigation’, said Ofcom.  Another three investigations were started the next month, making a total of eleven standards cases if you include one started last year about the use on air of allegedly fake tweets. This case has been found too be a breach of Ofcom’s code.

What Ofcom has done about Salisbury is to get out of the row about who did what to whom and focus instead on what RT broadcast about it. The Ofcom statement had one particularly curious line about TV Novosti, the Russian Federation-owned company which holds RT’s licence; ‘Until recently, TV Novosti’s overall compliance record had not been materially out of line with other broadcasters’. My own examination of the available data on cases of due impartiality, due accuracy and related offences shows that RT had ten breaches recorded against it since 2010, more than twice as many as any other broadcaster. Quite why Ofcom would frame the comparison with other broadcasters on ‘overall compliance’, including adherence to non-editorial regulation such as advertising minutes, is unclear. Its own figures show that ‘the majority of the breaches, and both of the more serious breaches, were in programming relating to Russia’s foreign policy and related to the requirement for due impartiality. The breaches related to programmes about Libya (2011, 2012), Syria (2012, 2013 and 2014), Ukraine (2014), Turkey (2016) and NATO (2016)’.

The regulatory requirement goes back to the 1954 Television Act which set up ITV. Section 3 (c) tasked the then regulator, the ITA, with ensuring that ‘any news given in the programmes (in whatever form) is presented with due accuracy and impartiality’. When asked what due impartiality meant, the Government of the day replied that it was whatever the regulator deemed it to be. The rule was later extended to the BBC  and Channel Four. Downing Street papers released in 2016 show that back in 1990 the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary, John Whittingdale, told Margaret Thatcher that they had ‘consistently abused’ the impartiality requirements. 

As it has turned out the broadcasters who have found ‘due impartiality’ a useful wedge are those from outside the UK, such as Fox News and RT, bringing a very particular point of view into the country. 

The limitations and qualifications which Ofcom has to take into account when enforcing ‘due impartiality’ were listed by the Competition and Markets Authority in the context of its review of the proposed acquisition of Sky by 21st Century Fox. The CMA concluded that  ‘broadcasters are, to some extent, able to adapt their own approach to the presentation of news and current affairs more generally’.

The considerations which create this situation include recognising the importance of freedom of expression, taking account of the context of the broadcast and ‘the expectation of the audience’. As the Ofcom executive responsible for enforcing impartiality for two and a half years I was sometimes heard to mutter that ‘audience expectation’ was another way of saying  ‘what else would viewers expect from a right-wing American TV station or one owned by the Kremlin’.

Ofcom says it will make the outcome of its investigations public as soon as possible. The process which the RT cases are going through is carefully observed by Ofcom’s legal team, led by the redoubtable General Counsel, Polly Weitzman, who has been at Ofcom since its creation. If breaches are recorded against RT/Novosti the Ofcom lawyers will highlight the importance of precedent and past performance in determining if a sanction is appropriate and what that sanction should be. 

In 2012 Ofcom revoked the licence of the Iranian news channel Press TV which as a result was no longer able to broadcast in the UK. The state-funded broadcaster’s English language service had breached several rules over editorial control and had refused to pay a fine. It seemed that Tehran, which claimed “a clear example of censorship” by ‘the media arm of the Royal Family’, rather enjoyed the fight and continued distributing its output online. The broadcasting battles between Britain and Iran continue to this day with the BBC World recently deploring Tehran’s apparent “targeted attack” on BBC Persian staff by freezing their assets.

Could it just be that in 2018 that it might suit RT’s owners in Moscow to be able to accuse Britain of censorship and retaliate in some way against the BBC. Which brings us back to the sayings of Kremlin news boss Dmitry Kiselyov. When in 2016 the BBC’s Moscow Correspondent Steve Rosenberg asked Kiselyov if he was the Kremlin’s chief propagandist he replied ‘If I make propaganda, then you make it too. But if you’re not doing propaganda, if you’re just doing your job, that applies to me too. We’re doing the same thing, we’re colleagues’.

So if ‘tit-for-tat’ or ‘colleague for colleague’ would be the likely retaliation for any Ofcom sanction which directly impacts on RT’s transmissions, perhaps a large fine would be the most appropriate outcome in all the circumstances. 

London’s top spy recruiter for the KGB deserves a bigger place in espionage history.

Next month a documentary is to be shown in London about a little-known woman who deserves a much bigger place in espionage history. Quite simply she started the process that led to the creation of the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and tried to do the same with former Oxford students too. I’m particularly interested to see ‘Tracking Edith’ at the Barbican Cinema on 28th July because for the past two years I’ve been tracking Edith too, her story is the centrepiece of a guided walk I give each month called ‘The Hampstead Spies’.

Edith Tudor-Hart was her married name, she was born Edith Suschitzky in Austria in 1908. The documentary was made by Peter Stephan Jungk, and the billing says that as he ‘learns more about his aunt and her work, his film demands the question: why is she not recognised alongside Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five as one of the spies that changed the world?’. Good question.

The answer partly lies in the way the British security service  drip feeds its files into history. Each autumn  MI5 releases to the National Archives a few more of its previously secret files on ‘Soviet intelligence agents and suspected agents..and suspected communist and Russian sympathisers’. Some of the big books in the world of espionage literature were written long before MI5 released in 2015 their file into ‘Edith Tudor-Hart,aliases Suschitsky,White,Betty Grey,codename Edith’.

One by-product of each release is that I put a few more red stars on my map of the old Borough of Hampstead. Each star denotes an address which has appeared in an MI5 file. I developed this addictive hobby during my research for a biography of Guy Burgess which I wrote in 2015 with Jeff Hulbert. Burgess never lived in Hampstead-he was more of a West End chap himself- but it seemed from the MI5 and Foreign Office files that just about everybody else involved in his recruitment to the KGB did. One had lived in a house just across the road from where I’d once had a flat.

In the 1930s many political and religious refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria headed for North-West London, traditionally a home of left-wing emigres since Marx and Engels stayed there and Lenin and Stalin briefly visited. Hampstead had what one resident called ‘shabby genteel Victorian streets’ where, according to official records, ‘the alien population had increased to almost 24,000’ by 1941.The Communist Party members amongst them were often the ‘scruffy lot’, Saturday mornings would be spent selling the Daily Worker on a street corner, Sundays at the Cosmo restaurant in Finchley Road with other refugees from ‘Mitteleuropa’. 

The few amongst them who actively recruited for Soviet intelligence have a comparatively modest place in the literature of Soviet espionage in Britain, certainly compared to those they signed up, spies like Kim Philby who lived in Hampstead pre and post recruitment. But more details are becoming known about them, either by an MI5 release or by their families looking back into their own archives.

In 1930s and 1940s Hampstead there were two emigre communities -one German, one Austrian -who saw it as their duty to continue the fight against fascism and to link up with like-minded Britons. Those refugees who decided that helping Soviet intelligence was a necessary and justifiable tactic against fascism chose to work with separate parts of what later became known as the KGB. The German Communists in Hampstead worked mostly with the Soviet military’s foreign intelligence agency, the GRU. Their greatest success was recruiting a key spy within the Anglo-American-Canadian ‘Manhattan’ research into nuclear weapons. The Austrian Communists tended to sign up with Stalin’s enforcers, the NKVD. They helped set up the biggest known network inside the British establishment, the so-called Cambridge spies and also tried to create one  at Oxford.

More than half a century on we know more about the origins of this particular NKVD enterprise from research done for his film by Jungk, the son of the cousin of the woman at the heart of it. Using family sources Jungk has traced the starting point back to a bookshop in Vienna in the mid-1920s where the owner’s teenage daughter was helping out. A man walked in and asked for a book by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich whose views on sex were so controversial that this was one of the few shops to stock it. 17 year old shop assistant Edith Suschitzky was interested in the book and therefore in the kind of man who would ask for it. His name was Arnold Deutsch, Jewish like her but four years older, originally from Slovakia, strong in physique and thick in hair.

For both of them Communist politics were a natural fit with sexual liberation. According to the family sources he invited her to a lecture on sexual politics, they walked in the park, swam naked at night in the Alte Donau and Edith’s first love affair was underway. She told him ‘I have chosen you Arnold’ even though she knew he was promised to somebody else. 

Edith and Arnold’s relationship was a long-term but stop-start one punctuated by his doctoral thesis, his marriage to a fellow Comintern courier, his subsequent training in Moscow as an agent, and Edith’s own induction into Soviet intelligence. By 1934 they were both agents living in London but married to other people. Arnold’s cover was researching psychology at London University, Edith was a photographer with a studio in the Belsize Park area of Hampstead. By a remarkable coincidence or a piece of excellent NKVD organisation, her entry into Britain from Austria had been eased by her marriage to a British communist Alex Tudor-Hart to become Mrs Edith Tudor-Hart while another Austrian Jewish communist, Litzi Friedman, got entry after meeting and marrying in Vienna a British communist to become Mrs Kim Philby. To complete the symmetry  Edith and Litzi knew each other from Vienna and Alex and Kim were both Communist graduates from Cambridge who knew Maurice Dobb. He was the Cambridge don who set Philby on the road to Vienna in 1933 to see for himself the class war in action. The Austrian left were fighting on the streets to try to take power. The right, encouraged by the rise of fascism across Europe, wanted to destroy them.

Back in London after the struggle was lost the Tudor-Harts and the Philbys lived in different parts of the Borough of Hampstead and met socially. It was perhaps inevitable that Edith would soon have, in Philby’s words, ‘a proposition to make which might vitally affect my future’. They set off together from Hampstead so that Edith could introduce him to a man ‘of decisive importance’.  When they reached a bench by the boating pond in Regents Park a man who was waiting there stood up to welcome them. Edith said ‘Here we are, on the dot’ and left them to it.

Which is how Kim Philby met Edith’s fellow agent and by now former lover, Arnold Deutsch. The recruiter flattered Philby into Soviet intelligence and did the same to friends Philby introduced from his Cambridge University days such as future Foreign Office diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. How much more exciting, Deutsch promised them, to join this exclusive club rather than be a mere Communist Party member. In fact Deutsch told them that joining the party was the very last thing they should think of doing.

Edith was also interested in somebody ‘more promising’ than Philby. She demanded ‘we must make haste’ with the recruitment of Anthony Blunt, although he later claimed they never actually met. Edith had built her reputation as a photographer documenting working-class life in Britain but by 1940 the studio business was in trouble, she was divorced from Alex, had a severely autistic son Tommy to bring up and, according to the latest family research, received no remuneration for her espionage. She pleaded for help to Jack Pritchard, creator of the nearby Isokon block of flats where the communal living spaces created an intellectual meeting-place in North London. Edith had photographed the opening of the building and it had been her recommendation that led to Arnold Deutsch and his wife moving in. She wrote to Pritchard : ‘I am now in a difficult situation and urgently need a job’. He was not encouraging.

Meanwhile her protege Kim Philby was moving up the ranks of British intelligence and saw updates on MI5’s activities, some of them about his old patch. The Security Service thought he might be interested to see a list of all suspected Austrian communists in London. He certainly would  because he could check if his own wife was on it. Amazingly she wasn’t.

When Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow in 1950 it was the beginning of the end for Edith’s ring. Philby came under suspicion and he too made a run for the Soviet Union. MI5 had always been on Edith’s case, watching her home in the 1930s, getting her to admit in 1947 that ‘she  used to work for the Russian Intelligence in Austria and Italy in 1932-3’ but nothing that was a crime in the UK. With the collapse of the ‘Cambridge Five’ (Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross were questioned but never charged) MI5 were back again and it was in 1964 that Blunt told them ‘he had always believed it was Tudor-Hart who first recruited Kim Philby’ and that she was probably ‘the grand-mother of us all’. Edith had a nervous breakdown, tried her luck running an antiques business in Portobello Road and Brighton and died from cancer in 1973.

Details of the documentary ‘Tracking Edith’,including a trailer are here  and there’s more about The Hampstead Spies’ guided walk here . If it’s not me doing the walk it will be my colleague and co-author Jeff Hulbert. Hope to see you there sometime.