Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Again and again, newspapers hounding the heritage body refuse to let facts get in their way, reports Brian Cathcart

A year ago, The Times newspaper published a news report that began: “The National Trust has declared its intention to ‘dial down’ its role as a major cultural institution and move away from being the custodian of the English country home.”

Note the words “has declared its intention”. Those are strong in journalistic terms: the reader would naturally understand that the National Trust had made an announcement or declaration on this subject and that this was now its policy. Was that the case? One only has to read the next paragraph.

“An internal briefing document outlines plans to put its [the National Trust’s] collections into storage and hold fewer exhibitions at its properties to prioritise its role as the ‘gateway to the outdoors’.” 

So – and this was confirmed in the body of the article – the basis for The Times’ claim that the National Trust had “declared its intention” of prioritising outdoor attractions over country houses was not in fact a declaration but an “internal briefing document”. The newspaper was misleading its readers. 

If there was no declaration, was there at least such a policy? Tellingly, The Times did not even address the question – but we have a good idea of the answer because the next day it published (19 pages deeper into the print edition and not reported as a news story) a letter from the National Trust’s director-general Hilary McGrady, stating that it was not policy. 

This was plain bad journalism. It is easy to imagine a serious news editor of the crusty, old-world kind scanning the reporter’s draft, shaking his head and telling the reporter: away and have another go, sonny, and this time stick to the facts. But that is not what happened in this instance. The Times went ahead and published it.

Big deal, you might say. So the newspaper oversold a story to get more clicks– plenty of worse stuff gets published in the national press, including in The Times. But accuracy matters.

The fundamental mission of journalists is to inform their readers about the real world; to tell the truth so far as they are able to. This story was not real. Its opening claim, about the National Trust “declaring an intention” was fantasy. And this was clearly not the result of an innocent misunderstanding.

While it is true that worse gets published, much of it about targets less able to look after themselves, the tale of the ‘declaration’ that never was is something worth dwelling on because it sheds a light on the way in which truth, accuracy and journalistic ethics are routinely set aside in the right’s ‘War on Woke’. 


A Target of Hate

Look at the way The Times’ misrepresentation was echoed and amplified. The next day, when McGrady’s denial appeared, the newspaper carried an opinion article stating that the National Trust “will prioritise the greening of urban spaces”. The internal briefing document was now referred to as “a 10-year strategy”.

The Mail, joining the game, opened high. The “secret, 17-page memo”, it stated, “suggests it [the National Trust] has taken the sensational decision to “dial down” its traditional role as a major national cultural institution. 

Thus, in the twinkling of an eye, an internal discussion document with suggestions that had not been accepted as policy was transformed for millions of readers into a “sensational decision” and a “10-year strategy”. That is not journalism, but Chinese whispers – of a kind where everyone passing on the message is deliberately adding hype.  

A common excuse for this is that there is ‘no smoke without fire’ and that newspapers that smell smoke are right to alert their readers. The problem here is that they smelled smoke but shouted ‘fire’. Words were available to communicate something far more accurate, such as: the National Trust leadership has discussed; or at a pinch: the National Trust is considering. But not “the National Trust has declared its intention”.

We know why newspapers do this. Bizarrely, the right-wing press and their friends hate the National Trust. A giant, rich, prominent charity, it has always been a butt of journalistic criticism of one form or another – too old-fashioned or too modern, too highbrow or too lowbrow. But the current ascendancy of the intolerant right has unleashed something far more vicious. 

Ever since staff at a stately home in Norfolk were told to wear rainbow lanyards in Pride Week, the National Trust has been a lightning rod for press outrage about ‘wokeism’. That story was certainly newsworthy and, four years on, it is still routinely invoked as a trigger for all the fury – though we are never reminded that it happened only once, in just one of the charity’s 300 sites, and that the National Trust soon did a U-turn. 


Winston Churchill

But last August’s fuss over the ‘internal briefing document’ was a mere warm-up. The following month saw the publication of the National Trust’s ‘Interim Report on the Connections Between Colonialism and Properties Now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’.

The introduction stated: “The research presented here indicates that 29 properties now in the care of the National Trust have links to successful compensation claims for slave ownership and somewhere in the region of one third of properties can be directly connected to colonial histories.”

In fact, this finding had been trailed in advance by the Trust without creating controversy. By the time of publication, it was not news. So, with newspapers requiring another angle, what did they find?

The Times went for: ‘Churchill’s Home on National Trust’s Slavery List’. The Telegraph chose: ‘Churchill’s Home on National Trust’s BLM List of Shame’. And the Mail: ‘National Trust Includes Homes of Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling on “List of Shame”‘. 

But this was again fiction. Churchill had not been linked to slavery; the report was not a ‘BLM [Black Lives Matter] list’ (it was commissioned long before the murder of George Floyd); and, as for the ‘List of Shame’, the Mail – having no doubt copied the term from the Telegraph – could not actually produce a person who had uttered the words.

The reality is this. The report is 115 pages long and Churchill’s name appears in two short and similar paragraphs, on pages 55 and 70, because he lived at what is now a National Trust house, Chartwell. Those paragraphs state, correctly, that he served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, helped draft the treaty that created the Irish Free State, opposed Indian independence, and was Prime Minister during the Second World War – a period that also included the Bengal Famine, about which he has been criticised.

Nobody who spent five minutes looking at the report could claim that the National Trust made a fuss of this. If anything, it dealt with the matter discreetly. And it could scarcely have left Churchill out, given that two of the criteria for inclusion were “involvement in colonial administration in a senior capacity” and “a culturally significant relationship to the literature or the promotion of colonialism”. Those were matters of pride to Churchill.

But none of that mattered to The Times, the Telegraph or the Mail: they had seen a way to make trouble and they were not going to let the facts stop them.

The Times gleefully reported the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, condemning the National Trust for “highlighting” Churchill’s role. Meanwhile, a group of Conservative backbenchers wrote furiously to the Telegraph, lamenting that the Trust had “implicitly tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons, Winston Churchill, by linking his family home, Chartwell, with slavery and colonialism”.

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The Charity Commission

There followed the involvement of the Charity Commission – which regulates charities in England and Wales – a shabby episode for the organisation, which has been thoughtfully dissected by a specialist charity lawyer, Philip Kirkpatrick.

What is clear is that, either deliberately or stupidly, the Commission agreed to launch a “regulatory compliance case”, the short-term effect of which was inevitably to feed the frenzy: ‘National Trust Faces Inquiry Into Its “Purpose”’, declared the Telegraph; while the Mail announced: ‘National Trust Faces Probe By Watchdog’.

That the case ended six months later with a finding that the National Trust had acted entirely within its charitable objectives in producing the report – and, by extension, including in it references to Winston Churchill – should have surprised no one. As Fitzpatrick put it: “There cannot be a lawyer or experienced regulator within the Commission who could not have answered that question immediately and without bothering the trustees about it.”

Why the Charity Commission had initiated such a case when – as it was forced to admit – it had received only three complaints on the matter, is much harder to explain. Fitzpatrick concluded that the regulator “was simply pressurised into taking action against the National Trust by the powerful megaphone of the press and some MPs”.


Tim Parker

It did not end with the Commission’s findings, and why would it? The ‘slur on Churchill’ and the regulatory probe have simply been added to the file of fictional or exaggerated National Trust gaffes and outrages to be deployed in justification for further fabrications and misrepresentations. 

Hence the treatment of the departure in May of the Trust’s chair, Tom Parker. ‘National Trust Chairman Quits Amid Revolt Over Charity’s “Woke” Policies’, announced the Telegraph and Mail in unison. ‘National Trust’s “Woke” Chair Tim Parker Quits Amid Rebellion,’ echoed The Times

The facts, which were no doubt available to reporters on request, were that Parker was not giving up the job early but that he had stayed in post beyond a second term of office, unusually, because of the Coronavirus crisis. Nor did he walk away – he gave notice in May that he would be leaving in October. 

Is he ‘woke’? I doubt whether many people would connect wokeness with Kwik-Fit, Samsonite, Kenwood, the AA, Legal & General and the Post Office – of all of which he is or has been either the chair or a director.

Nor is it clever for newspapers to link unconnected matters with the word “amid”. It is usually a sign that they want to put into the minds of readers a connection that either does not exist or which cannot be proven. That is also dishonest. 


Charles Moore

The nadir of the journalism about the National Trust, remarkably, had still not been reached – until Charles Moore entered the story.

His recent article in the Spectator contained the remarkable sentence: “According to a current National Trust employee, who naturally remains anonymous: ‘At interviews people are asked how they voted in the Brexit referendum and rejected out of hand if they voted to leave’.” 

It is an extraordinary allegation. Such a practice would be indefensible, but might well be unlawful too. And, when the practicalities are considered, it is clear that any management would be insane to adopt it. With around 9,500 employees, the National Trust must conduct several rounds of interviews every week, which means that a good many interviewers would have to be in on the secret and an awful lot of applicants (most of whom don’t get the jobs) are being routinely asked that question. It could not remain secret for long.

Let us, in polite fashion, assume that Moore really did hear those words from a person employed by the National Trust. If true, it would be a significant scoop. But, given its intrinsic improbability, what should he have done? What would any conscientious, fair-minded journalist do? Ask the National Trust for their response.

Yet, no comment from the organisation appeared in Moore’s article and I was told by its head of external communications, Caroline Sigley, that neither Moore nor the Spectator put the allegation to it in advance of publication. Nor was there any sign in Moore’s article that he checked or verified the claim in any other way. (For the record, and unsurprisingly, the National Trust dismisses the whole idea as ludicrous).

It would be difficult to exaggerate how fundamentally bad this is as journalistic practice – and strikingly it is the work of a former editor of the Telegraph. But Charles Moore has the comfort of knowing that there will be no consequences because the Spectator is ‘regulated’ by the IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation), which, if it looks into the matter at all, can be guaranteed to find a half-baked excuse for him. 


Fiction Upon Fiction

In this way, yet another weapon is added to the armoury of lies and exaggerations to be used in the war against the ‘woke’ National Trust.

Along with rainbow lanyards and neglected country houses and slurs on Winston Churchill requiring regulatory probes and runaway chairmen, we will in future be reminded that National Trust staff are hand-picked for their politics (or at least that ‘it was reported’ that they were).   

I hold no brief for the National Trust, though (to declare a possible interest) I am a member. I am sure it makes mistakes and it may well have some bad policies, and I am also sure that it has critics who are sincere and thoughtful and who make use of actual evidence.

The case compiled by The Times, the Telegraph and the Mail, by contrast, is not based on actual evidence – it is a bundle of lies and distortions wrapped in bluster. Abandoning the idea of giving their readers an accurate picture of what is happening, these newspapers deliberately make innocent actions look like crimes and minor mistakes look like outrages – all for the bizarre purpose of convincing those readers that they are under siege from the armies of ‘woke’. 

The National Trust as a threat to the British way of life? It is nonsense. But, for the purposes of those who own and run these newspapers, it is essential that danger appears to come from unlikely sources.

And they aren’t stopping with the National Trust. Next in line is that other obvious fifth-column organisation, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. And after the RNLI? Kew Gardens and Barnardo’s. 

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)

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