24 June 2023

When a senior judge says
‘journalists are decent people’
and defends the role of
the press to scrutinise

Michael Fabricant with Ian Hislop on ‘Have I Got News For You’ … politicians are happy to be panellists until satire catches them out

Patrick Comerford

One of my favourite columns in the Church Times is the back-page interview each week.

In this week’s edition of the Church Times, Sir Mark Hedley Mark Hedley, a retired High Court judge, is talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

I first got to know Sir Mark and his wife Erica at a dinner in Liverpool Cathedral, where I had been invited to preach by the then Dean of Liverpool, now Archbishop Justin Welby. We later met for dinner in Bray while Mark and Erica were on holidays in Ireland, and we kept in touch with one another for many years.

Sir Mark is retired, but remains busy as Chancellor of the Diocese of Liverpool, a chaplain at Liverpool Cathedral, a Visiting Professor in Law at a local university, as well as being a trustee of several charities and a reader. He was brought in to investigate recent conflict at Wymondham Abbey, in Norfolk, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has awarded him the Canterbury Cross for services to the Church of England.

It is good to read a judge of Sir Mark’s standing and reputation tell a newspaper: ‘I’m keen on the press scrutinising what we do. It’s our best protection by far. My father and two brothers were journalists, and my confidence that journalists are decent people was usually borne out. Judges of the family division have extraordinary discretionary powers over life and death, and people absolutely need to be aware of what we do.’

I firmly believe that his applies not only to judges but to politicians and government ministers too, particularly in a time when freedom of speech seems to be under attack in a systemic and calculated way under successive Conservative governments, with the connivance and support, sadly, of some media outlets such as the Daily Mail and the self-styled GB News, which is more like a propaganda machine than a news channel.

Sir Mark has every reason to believe that ‘journalists are decent people’ and to be protective of the freedom and rights of the media. He recalls in his interview this week that ‘ father became the chief sub-editor of a Fleet Street daily’ and that two of his brothers were journalists.

But the present political climate leaves me to fear that there is a co-ordinated onslaught on media freedoms by Conservative politicians and supporters today. Four examples illustrate and support my arguments and my fears:

1, Why satire and humour are too much to take:

The BBC News at Ten presenter Clive Myrie was pulled from the live broadcast at the last minute last Friday after making several jokes about the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he hosted Have I Got News For You.

All the reports say this was due to a timing schedule after Clive Myrie made about the lying and convicted former Prime Minister while hosting the comedy show. But last week’s episode of Have I Got New For You was recorded on Thursday night before it was aired at 9 p.m., and he was pulled from presenting Friday’s News at Ten due to be broadcast on BBC1 at 10 pm.

Perhaps the ‘timing schedule’ means the two programmes were too close to one another. But it also shows how Conservative politicians and supporters are unable handle jokes about Boris Johnson, and cannot tell the difference between political satire and news on the one hand and news and journalism on the other.

The irony is that Boris Johnson and other Conservative politicians, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, have regularly appeared as hosts and panellists on Have I Got New For You.

Johnson has been a host on four occasions, and has been a panellist three times, on both Ian Hislop’s and Paul Merton’s team. His appearances on the show helped to cement his public persona as a buffoonish eye-roll inducing caricature, and he used the show as a platform to endear himself to a public that regards self-deprecation an art form.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been a panellist twice, on both occasions on Paul Merton’s team, while Michael Fabricant, whose unquestioning loyalty to Johnson was repaid with a knighthood, has been a panellist on Ian Hislop’s team.

The MP for Lichfield received a hostile reaction from viewers after appearing on the news quiz show alongside poet John Cooper Clarke and guest host Jo Brand. But even before the show went out he tried to manage expectations, claiming on Twitter even before he had seen the final edited version: ‘If I appear awful on #HIGNFY, it’s because all the good bits were cut out of the 2 hour recording. That’s my story and I am sticking to it.’

He attracted controversy early on in the broadcast after a segment focussing on proposals to ask landlords to help ascertain the legal status of foreign tenants, with Fabricant saying of the stars of classic comedy Rising Damp: ‘They look foreign to me.’ It was a massive racist bombshell just two minutes into the show.

Fabricant got another mention on last week’s show – the same show that seems to have landed Clive Myrie in hot water. Ian Hislop said: ‘The only people who are defending Boris are the people who he gave an honour three days ago. There is a case I think for suggesting that the political honours that he gave out should all be nulled.’ Paul Merton then added: ‘There’s a coterie of weirdness about him, isn’t there? People like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, Michael Fabricant. It’s like the human version of The Muppets.’

2, Sidelining and ignoring questions:

Earlier this week, Rishi Sunak did not take a question from the Guardian during his question answer time with the media.

As the Guardian points out, it is not unusual for news organisations deemed unsupportive to be low on the list when questions are assigned. But if politicians only allow themselves to be questioned by and to come under scrutiny from their own supporters, we do not have a free press.

Thankfully, this tactic can come back to haunt politicians who are not open to questioning and scrutiny. The Prime Minister may have been hoping for a more helpful question when he called Tom Harwood from GB News – which few journalists (and probably few politicians) accept as a serious news outlet.

To everyone’s surprise, and to Sunak’s surprise too, Harwood asked if the fact that Conservatives are distributing leaflets in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election attacking plans to build 300,000 homes meant the government was no longer committed to this target itself. And he asked if some of Sunak’s own policies had contributed to inflation.

In response, Sunak ignored both points and just attacked Labour. Harwood was not impressed, and tweeted: ‘Sunak refuses to answer my question on Tory Party literature in Uxbridge attacking a 300,000 homes a year housing target … Also completely avoided answering whether his uprating benefits and pensions by 10.1%, and reinstating effective bans on onshore wind and shale gas exploration have proved inflationary. Just spoke about Labour. Makes the ‘I’m a different kind of politician’ claims ring hollow.’

Selecting the news outlets you respond to, favouring them at press conferences, and then ignoring their questions bodes ill for the future of press freedom in this land.

3, Clear conflicts of interest:

Conservative politicians and supporters are quick to accuse the BBC of bias, as Clive Myrie learned in the past week. But they see no conflict of interest in Jacob Rees-Mogg hosting his own unregulated show on GB News.

He is another MP who has been knighted for nothing other than his unquestioning loyalty to Johnson. But even he was left stunned on air recently by the journalist and political commentator Marina Purkiss told him the Tories were drawing attention to issues that have little impact on people’s lives in a bid to distract them from the party’s own failings.

She encouraged viewers to consider whether it was debates over Roald Dahl being rewritten that would really impact their lives or whether it was the crisis in the NHS.

In a complete misrepresentation of reality, Rees-Mogg told Purkiss she should ‘stand up for freedom of speech.’ She said: ‘Mr freedom-of-speech here. Did you or did you not vote people to stop protesting if it was annoying?’ Rees-Mogg gave a token reply that public protest was ‘very important,’ but then tried to justify himself, alleging the new laws are important to ‘get the balance right.’

Purkiss challenged Johnson’s unquestioning loyalist to explain how freedom of speech would ‘make people’s lives better.’ She added: ‘Me making my case on this programme, which I will never come back on, is just so people understand that this is not going to help them.’

Rees-Mogg, who has shown his own contempt for Parliament in recent years with his louche body language, continued to repeat the claim and that he is using his platform to give people ‘freedom of speech’ in a bid to make their case. He added that the ‘left don’t like this.’

Martina Purkiss responded: ‘I didn’t realise I was on the left. I just realised I was a decent person. I’m not a massive lefty. “I just realised what you lot are doing in government is disgusting. You lie and you lie and you’ve got no contrition for what you’ve done to people. Your Brexit. Do you care?’

4, Pressures on programme makers:

Perhaps that was a rhetorical question. Because the truth is that people like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Fabricant and Boris Johnson simply do not care.

Although Clive Myrie returned to news broadcasting this week, the way he has been treated, if not disciplined, serves to illustrate the nasty pressures brought to bear on BBC programme makers and producers by Conservative politicians and supporters, who are quick to offer criticism and to attack, but are unwilling to accept any criticism themselves and who fail to understand the subtlety – and the necessity – of political satire and humour.

One BBC producer recently told me of the extreme pressure she and her colleagues for any and every programme that seems to be critical, even in the most detached way, of any Conservative figure. These complaints come immediately, sometimes even before a broadcast has finished, and each complaint needs to be filed properly, investigated thoroughly and reported on comprehensively – an expectation that is required in law of the impartial BBC but not required of Tory-backing outlets such as Sky News and GB News.

Even when the complaints are investigated, more follow – but you’re not going to hear about that officially from the BBC and you are certainly not going to read about it in the Dail Mail. And you are certainly not going to hear about it from Jacob Rees-Mogg on GB News.

When Sir Mark Hedley was a High Court judge, he tells the Church Times, he kept a notice before him that reminded him: ‘The real world is not in this court.’ He says: ‘You’re seeing the last half per cent of human awfulness most of the time, and it can be a distorted view.’

To avoid the public receiving the distorted view of life that Conservative politicians would foist on us, we need to be vigilant about the freedoms of the press and of broadcasters. We need to defend the right to humour and satire in programmes like , to defend the rights and discretions of programme makers in the BBC, and we need to stop prime ministers ignoring questions from newspapers like the Guardian, and we need to ridicule them for sidestepping questions, even from outlets such as GB News.

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