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Sunday, November 11, 2012

McCarthyism in the British Press

The phone hacking scandal that rocked the News of the World led to the closure in 2011, of this 168 year old British national institution.  ITV1 and the BBC recklessly endangered our civil liberties, and our Society, and of course neither international news outlet will accept this judgement.  But let’s first examine their malignant and improprietous behaviour. For the national purpose they supposedly serve they will be excused any crimes, after that is, the requisite heads have rolled.

Senator Joseph McCarthy is infamous for the excesses of his anti-Communist witch-hunts.  His legacy, ‘McCarthyism’ denotes reckless and unsubstantiated accusation. It was not his anti-Communist stance per se that destroyed him but his intolerable methods.  His famous speech, delivered on February 9th 1950 “I have here in my hand a list” was repeated at different times and with different numbers of victims. His theatrical and demagogic tactics added to his popularity. But they also created dread amongst all classes of society. His witch-hunts had a devastating effect on the lives of those he hunted.  He destroyed the reputations of both the great as well as the anonymous good, inevitably based on hearsay. 

And now to return to publicly funded British TV.  Jimmy Savile's guilt seems to be beyond reproach. There are allegations of at least 300 cases of sexual abuse laid out against him after his death.  The lynch mob mentality that has gathered pace with the increasing magnitude of his alleged crimes was the first warning shot that the press was out of control if only because it removed compassion from public debate.  Without it we are all beasts of prey.  It will never justify events but without our compassion we become a mob and then the innocent are swept up in the melee. Without compassion, the mob rules and the victims become no more than an excuse for the terror that follows.  It may sound melodramatic but examine subsequent events that follow on from Jimmy Savile and it is difficult to fathom the incompetence of journalists whose blame is now being successfully reassigned to management even though in the first instance that culpability would have originated within their ranks.

Phillip Schofield interviewed Prime Minister David Cameron on ITV1’s hugely popular “This Morning” program on the 9th of November 2012.  He said to the Prime Minister on Prime Time Television “I Have a List”.  Senator McCarthy would have been proud.  Without proper regard to evidence he trawled the Internet and came up with a putative list of villain’s names.  This is no more than rumour masked as journalism and should never have been aired on national television. 

To his credit the PM warned Schofield "There is a danger, if we're not careful, that this could turn into a sort of witch-hunt.”

Fast forward to the BBC’s flagship “News Night” program and not to be outdone by Channel 4, the following day the BBC exposed the Conservative Party Fundraiser and former party treasurer Lord McAlpine as a serial pedophile. It seems that 20 years of unsubstantiated drivel filled out with layer upon layer of lies could not be removed from the Internet but provided the juice for a salacious tale which even though it was filled with more holes than Swiss cheese was nevertheless the grist for a momentous story baked up by the BBC and served up to the British public on national news.

With the allegations vigorously refuted by Lord McAlpine's family solicitor the reality is that his name is forever associated with pedophilia, his innocence is now irrelevant to the damage done to his reputation. Wealth is no cover for infamy.

Not wanting to be upstaged by its rival broadcaster, there was nevertheless sufficient doubt as to the veracity of the story to at least delay publication.  That the BBC did not is unacceptable.  To quote Edward R. Murrow (American Broadcast journalist who produced two programs that helped to bring McCarthy’s reign of terror to an end):

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty……accusation is not proof and conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law” (March 9, 1954)

This should be the first rule of law and the truth must not be relegated to an inconvenient shelf high up and out of reach, for the sake of fashion, prejudice or ratings.

The sad reality is that a significant section of the British Press has grown arrogant beyond belief. It has arrogated to itself the responsibilities that we assign to our elected government.  We can vote our members of parliament out of office.  Our unelected and largely unaccountable journalists now decide what is ‘truth’ and they define justice.

Society has been usurped by the press and is now in serious ethical trouble.


  1. Good post. "Accusation is not proof and conviction depends upon evidence and due process" is a hallmark of British justice but not on the continent. Perhaps this change of attitude is an unintended consequence of our engagement in the EU?

  2. As an Australian viewing and hearing of this scandal from afar, I am equally as concerned about the current trend within even so-called 'quality journalism' for short term, tabloid-style 'gotcha' moments. While not defending the likes of Jimmy Savile or any others charged with heinous crimes, due process of law, the presumption of innocence and so on are fundamental tenets of democracy and a just and equitable society. It seems however that the political economy of media these days is creating a climate where this is no longer given appropriate consideration even within august organisations such as the BBC.

    Unfortunately, here in Australia as elsewhere, similar examples of 'trial by media' are occurring. A recent example was the background to our prime minister Julia Gillard's wonderful 'misogyny' speech (see it here The Australian press variously castigated her for playing the 'gender card' by attacking the opposition leader Tony Abbot's various sexist comments, and by doing so supporting the similarly sexist text messages sent by disgraced House of Reps Speaker Peter Slipper. The point that even the broadsheets missed was that she was arguing that Slipper's behaviour was the subject of court proceedings and that to judge him in parliament before that process was complete was inappropriate. The nuances were almost completely missed in the massive media storm which erupted. Interestingly, there was a significant divergence of views between the traditional mainstream media commentariat and the social media bloggers and tweeters, most of whom 'got it' and who applauded the PM for her stance, not to mention cheered her gutsy rebuttal to what has been a disgraceful several years of snide, gender-infused 'dog whistling'. (for an excellent commentary on this, see feminist academic and journalist Dr Anne Summers

    If as a society we are to resist the temptation to license such behaviour, we need to stand up and defend those whose alleged behaviour we may well abhor.

  3. have to disagree with my anonymous australian comrade above me, the speech was shameful, gillard lowered the whole parliamentary process by her speech accusing abbot of something he clearly is not. yes he may be old fashioned in his values (so is my dad) but he is not a misogynist. while the speech made a great sound byte and went viral, it's context did not. she was defending a man who was accused of sexual harassment by his staffer and whose texts exposed a very strange attitude to women, which clearly proves a much more 'suspect' attitude to women than the leader of the opposition who is surrounded by women as part of his family and his front bench.
    what occurred in the press is part of the culture wars, whereby those who appear to tweet and use facebook as activist tools went to war with the more traditional press who gave a much clearer perspective of the event. context!
    this is the problem with the media globally, the ability to critically think has been reduced to a few words in a tweet or a u tube clip.
    every one has opinions, it's just in your version of events there is no perspective in the above comment, it's just raw ideology, because the very people who hold the standard that the leader of the opposition has to reach can't reach it themselves. they fail every time, the next day they were at a union function laughing at very sexist jokes about the oppositions press secretary.
    people are drifting into 'newpeak' here.
    i think people should write what they want, say what they feel, unrestricted. offence can't be given, it can only be taken. the bbc has been doing this for years, it's a joke, everyone knows its a left wing propaganda machine which is why they will never release the balen report despite the fact the public paid for it and the court costs to keep it sealed.
    as far as the press goes the really interesting point that occurred here is the macquarie dictionary decided to change the definition of the word misogynist in the same week as gillard's speech. so between the media rewriting truth and the dictionary redefining words, what chance do we really have?