Why not Liddle?

If you’re currently an Indy reader it’s probably easy to agree on why the newspaper shouldn’t be entrusted to Rod Liddle’s editorial caresses. But why should his potential employer care about Liddle’s reputation? Maybe Lebedev thinks the Indy would be more profitable with Liddle’s paranoid rants deciding the front page. Maybe he’s blithely unconcerned about monkemfc’s preferences in violent sexual contact with female newsreaders. But even if the content of Liddle’s message board contributions doesn’t trouble Lebedev, the fact that everyone now knows about them should.

If Liddle is hired, he’s probably going to be overseeing the paper’s gradual move away from print and into predominantly online distribution, yet he’s already shown himself thoroughly incompetent in online communication. He treated published comments on a message board as though they were private statements, and although he’s claimed that the most outrageous of the monkemfc posts were made by a hacker, he didn’t have the nous to protect his online reputation in a forum where he was still an active member by getting the alleged hacker’s posts deleted.

Interviewed by Kate Silverton on 5 Live this morning, he said: “I didn’t have time to go back and check the URL on every post,” suggesting a breezy disconnect from the words published under his name – not exactly taking ownership of his output in the way that an editor really ought to. This could be the why the monkemfc comments are ultimately damaging to Liddle: not because they show that he’s prone to blurts of contrarian offensiveness (because we knew that already) but because they show that that he doesn’t understand the medium he’s going to be working in. He can’t manage an online reputation and he can’t control the words that appear under his own username on a forum, never mind across a whole newspaper.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

The Paperhouse guide to free speech

Freedom of speech is a solid old principle. Shame, then, that it gets rolled out so often by dullards trying to shield other dullards from criticism. Catherine Bennett is – I’m guessing – aware that no one is trying to ban Rod Liddle. The campaign to stop him from becoming editor of the Independent has a pretty clear aim: to let the potential proprietors know how utterly Liddle’s appointment would alienate the readership. I’d suggest that Lebedev should be grateful for the anti-Liddle Facebook group giving him a preliminary market research report for free, only the mismatch between Liddle and the Indy is obvious like a flasher’s knob (and even more so now we know about his message board comments).

So, there’s no organised effort to get Rod Liddle imprisoned, tortured, fined or even made to sit on the naughty step for what he’s published. Just a strong and widespread feeling that he’d be a disaster in the job. And despite what Bennett suggests, freedom of speech means, exactly, freedom of speech. Not “freedom to edit national newspapers”. And definitely not “freedom from being criticised by anyone who doesn’t have a newspaper column”. Because when Bennett worries that “Public figures will become ever blander in their views” if they continue to be exposed to opposition, what she’s arguing is that public figures should be protected from opposition.

There’s a depressing implication here: Bennett is positing free speech as an end in itself, not as the necessary preliminary to debate. If Bennett was the Lord Chamberlain of the internet, presumably we could all say exactly what we liked about anyone or anything, so long as we weren’t rude enough to offer anything as ghastly as a direct response. It’s the same measly logic used by Nick Cohen: freedom of speech, if it means anything, means journalists never having to be told they’re wrong. It’s astonishing that people with such an infantile idea of civil liberties can offer themselves seriously as defenders of democracy, but there you are.

Because if you’re making lofty civic claims for journalism, I don’t think – and hug yourselves now, because I’m about to be shocking – that being bland is the biggest thing you have to worry about. I’d be busier stressing the importance of getting stuff right, which is hard to do when you’ve ruled all criticism illegitimate. And if Bennett thinks that Lebedev is going to bring devastating redundancies to the Indy, maybe she should take a moment to imagine the sort of restructuring it’s going to need once Liddle has managed to repulse every loyal reader.

See also: Next Left, “Do Rod Liddle’s human rights trump yours?”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Do Rod Liddle’s human rights trump yours?

Stephen Glover on NOTW phone hacking: lay off, we’re dying

Den and Angie

A painfully constant theme of journalists talking about their trade is the wail that things are hard enough for them already and papers shouldn’t make things harder by criticising their own industry. You get it from Dacre, you get it from Wade, and this morning, you get it from Stephen Glover in the Independent.

Glover indentifies a conspiracy between the BBC and the Guardian to push the NOTW phone hack story. If I was looking for the ingredients of a conspiracy in this business, I’d probably be looking at the organisation that’s been paying off the victims of its own criminal actions. Not Glover:

Most of this story was old. We already knew eight-tenths of it, though we had probably forgotten we did. Nonetheless, it was imaginatively repackaged by those symbiotic organisations, The Guardian and the BBC, and sold as new. The Corporation had been put on red alert by the newspaper at a senior level well before the story broke.

In the next paragraph, he dismissively mentions the part of the story that was new – the vast pay-offs – and instead accuses the BBC of being vindictively anti-Murdoch. Has it been? The BBC routinely runs heavily on critical media stories about its own actions. During the Brand/Ross farrago, most bulletins led on the outrage; when the BBC executives’ expenses were released, a large chunk of PM was devoted to picking them over. The BBC is an imperfect organisation and there’s plenty that it should be criticised for, but the best I can say without having a breakdown of broadcast-minutes-per-story is that the BBC has given no more prominence to the phone hack story than to any of those (probably much less important) stories. In contrast, News International has barely acknowledged that it’s under discussion.

But Glover is distressed to see the press’ failings exposed, as his ad hom attack on Nick Davies shows. First he silkily denigrates the investigative work of Flat Earth News by calling it “a book which suggests that the press is wildly dysfunctional” (my emphasis), and then, having failed to represent Davies’ ideas fairly, he goes on to give a poisonous description of his personality:

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, but he seems to me a misanthropic, apocalyptic sort of fellow – the sort of journalist who can find a scandal in a jar of tadpoles.

What Glover doesn’t mention – and this is curious given how aghast he was a few paragraphs ago at Newsnight’s failure to reveal a perceived conflict of interest in Peter Wilby’s commentary – is that his own employers (along with every other Fleet Street institution) were substantially and specifically criticised in Flat Earth News. Glover is also a columnist for the Daily Mail. Apparently that’s not relevent to his views on Davies, though. Nor, seemingly, is the fact the Indy and its parent company have their own reasons to be displeased with the Guardian’s media coverage.

Still, it’s not as though Glover approves of the dark arts. It’s just that his “guess is that most newspapers have cleaned up their act”, and anyway, newspapers have more important things to think about than the quality or legality of their investigations:

Naturally I do not condone newspapers listening into the private conversations of celebrities, though I would have no problem in the case of a minister who was on the fiddle or betraying his country. I do know that the national press is weaker than it has been for more than a century, with most titles losing money, and I regret that, at such a time, The Guardian and the BBC should use largely old information to weaken it further

When pundits speaking for the press adopt this line, they sound like nothing so much as Angie Watts weedling Dirty Den to take her back by pretending she only had six months to live. There’s no other organisation from which newspapers would allow such claims: MPs who complained that the heavy reporting of the expenses scandal was undermining public respect for parliament were, rightly, ridiculed. The idea that newspapers’ problems come from an excess of self-examination is – as this indulgent, incoherent and partial article inadvertently shows – equally absurd.

© Sarah Ditum 2009