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13 December 2011

In Praise of Patten

I never thought I'd find myself writing an article praising a former Tory party chairman who was a confidant of Baroness Thatcher.

However, I've just caught up with Lord (Chris) Patten's speech to the Society of Editors last month in which he made an eloquent analysis of the BBC's relationship with the tabloid press.

At a time when the profession is being dragged through the gutter at the Leveson inquiry, knives are out for journalists everywhere and the climate of score-settling means even that beacon of moral values Hugh Grant feels safe to stick his oar in (as it were) Patten spoke, I think, for all decent journalists, especially those working in local and regional news, not just those employed by the BBC.

The passage that particularly impressed was:
There is a kind of symbiosis between the BBC and the press.
We do different but complementary things. The BBC depends on the press for some of its news agenda and it gives some stories back to the press to pursue further. The style of the tabloids is not something we could or should try to match. But nor should we be snobbish or squeamish about it.
The Sun under Kelvin McKenzie added (to use the word in the old-fashioned sense) to the gaiety of the nation. I still have a copy of The Sun's front page "Up Yours Delors", written of course by "our Diplomatic Correspondent". Trevor Kavanagh is plainly one of the outstanding political writers of his generation. I have not always agreed with The Daily Mail (perhaps I am guilty of understatement) but I greatly admired its brave campaign in pursuit of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence and – which I trust won't annoy him too much – I try not to miss Quentin Letts.
It may be that I have always been more relaxed about the tabloids than some former political colleagues because I have never been convinced that they set the political agenda decisively.
I used to be the Chairman of the Conservative Party. When after the election in 1992 we heard that it was the "Sun wot won it", I reflected on the fact that our polling throughout the election campaign had shown that most of the public and its readers thought it was a Labour newspaper.
The world will move on, eventually, beyond the current hacking obsession.

Who knows, one day The Guardian might even apologise properly for fabricating the story that it was someone working on behalf of News International who deleted voicemails on murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone, thereby hyping public outrage to a critical point which precipitated the closure of the News of The World, the loss of several hundred jobs, and the setting up of Lord Leveson's inquiry.

The real story (that messages on a mobile are automatically deleted after a set period) didn't fit with The Guardian's virulent anti-Murdoch agenda. Driven by hatred of the tribal enemy they simply didn't allow the facts to get in the way of a good story, shoddy journalistic behaviour which they rightly criticise in others.

So it's good to see Patten, a man as establishment as they come, speaking out in support of gutsy, popular tabloid reporting - and by so doing helping to restore the reputation of the hundreds, maybe thousands of decent journos, particularly local and regional reporters and especially those in the broadcast sector, who have never and would never indulge in the kind of practices currently touted by the Guardian and other self-serving, self-appointed experts as the norm for all journalists.

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