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Right now, the spectacle of the entire UK mainstream media going mad over the BBC presenter story, as they did for five whole days, looks about as squalid and as monstrous as it could possibly be.
It was the Sun that started it all – that contemptible rag that is proved to be, in poll after poll, Britain’s least trusted news source – by blaring out a sleazy tale with no names and a single source.
But it was the rest of the national news media – acting like the single “feral beast” they were once branded – that took an unbaked item of journalism from an utterly untrustworthy source and turned it into a frenzy. It is thanks to them that we have had five days of national madness.
And what do we have to show for them? One well-known newsreader with a history of fine journalism reduced to a wreck, no crimes, and a brief and shameful silence.
Let me take you back to February 2020, when Rupert Murdoch’s Sun was once again the force behind a feral feeding frenzy. That was when Caroline Flack, another hugely popular TV presenter with a well-known history of depression and anxiety, took her own life after months of vile headlines.
As we know, she had done nothing that remotely merited the treatment she received – and what she needed was help, rather than monstrous intrusion and bullying spread over national front pages. And what did we have to show for all that? A talented woman dead at 40. There was a shame-filled silence then too, but it could not be more obvious that nobody learned a thing from the experience.
It was the same Sun newspaper, too, that dragged up from the distant family background of the cricketer Ben Stokes a tragedy far too appalling to be repeated here – and threw it all over the front page for fun.
The same Sun, too, that bribed public officials and is quietly paying out settlements to people who sue it for hacking their phones.
The same Sun that lied about Hillsborough.
And the same Sun that broke a record this month by becoming the first to be convicted of sexism by its own tame ‘self-regulator’.
The Sun is vile. It is dishonest. It is destructive. Every single day it disgraces the name of journalism and erodes the quality of life in this country. And yet significant numbers across the whole of the UK news media, including at the BBC, continue to follow its agenda like zombies.
Your anger is wasted on the Sun, its revolting owner Rupert Murdoch, its reprehensible Editor Victoria Newton, and its staff. They are in a world of their own, revelling in the power they wield and caring for nothing else.
Turn your anger instead on the rest of them: the journalists at other outlets who continue to treat the Sun as if it belongs in our world. It does not and they should never, ever, repeat anything that appears in the Sun as if it were fact or as if it were important.
That means in practice that, if the Sun runs a front page story, instead of saying ‘hey, that sounds interesting, let’s take it seriously, amplify it and help turn it into a sensation’, editors should say ‘it’s the Sun – it is almost certainly crap. We will not mention it or repeat a word of it unless we have verified and confirmed every fact independently’.
Who do I mean? I mean the editors and news editors of every national and regional newspaper. I mean the editors of every radio and television news and comment programme. I mean their reporters too. What on earth did they think they were doing?
While they slavishly pursued the cruel chimera that was the supposed Sun story, they were failing to tell their readers, listeners and viewers about a host of things that have been happening that are far more important.
As a result, while the planet suddenly tipped closer towards doomsday, the UK national press were super-excited about a story with – it’s worth repeating – no names, one source, one unpublished denial, and no crime, and which ultimately proved to be barely more than sad.
In other countries – notably the US, but also Germany – they have gutter tabloids dedicated to sleaze, but they do not normally allow them to dominate the national agenda. With rare exceptions, I believe, grown-up journalists at grown-up American news organisations would not touch one of their stories without verifying it from scratch.
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Why are we so cursed? Why are our mainstream journalists so sheep-like and reckless? There are probably many reasons. But one of them, without any doubt, is that there are no consequences in British journalism for getting things wrong. No consequences for the Sun and no consequences for the sheep who follow it.
They have codes of practice they don’t follow – especially in the press. They bleat about draconian libel laws but they know almost nobody can afford to sue them. And many journalists are in the pay of overseas billionaires who just don’t care and who happily promote the most brazen liars.
In a way, the shame of broadcast journalists should be the greatest. They were under no compulsion to follow the Sun and the Mail; they chose to. BBC News journalists may have felt a compulsion to cover the story properly but they were wrong to give it the kind of space and attention usually afforded to a national calamity.
So while the Sun, with its gutter standards, corrodes us all, it does so because journalists at other news publishers allow it to, and have been allowing it to for decades. As for our politicians, their serial cowardice is obvious and well documented.
When Keir Starmer paid court to Rupert Murdoch at his annual summer party the other week – apparently ushered into his presence by a Sun journalist – he was lending importance and credibility to a person who has done more than any other to cheapen and impoverish British life. And who continues that work every day through the Sun and The Times.
It is time all of this stopped.
Brian Cathcart is a journalist, academic and campaigner. He was one of founders of the Hacked Off group for a free and accountable press