UK Politics

Harman & the NCCL: What Has the BBC Really Learnt?

25 Feb 2014 at 08:17

One of the most irritating phrases you will ever hear on television is “the BBC has learnt”. You’d think it meant that due to an original piece of journalism, the BBC has found out something nobody else has. Invariably it means the BBC has switched on Sky News. Sky use a similar technique by using the phrase “Sky sources have told us.” But in each case it gives the broadcaster cover to hype up a story that might otherwise be considered a little pedestrian. And it perverts the news agenda. But this sort of thing happens every day. Take the current furore about Harriet Harman, the Daily Mail, and the NCCL.

Over the last few days both the BBC and Sky have studiously ignored the front pages of the Daily Mail, which has accused Harriet Harman of, well, I’m not totally sure exactly. It seems they think that because she was legal officer to the NCCL she must have somehow sympathised with the aims and objectives of one of its thousands of members, the Paedophile Information Exchange. It’s a ‘guilt by association’ smear which upon any reasonable examination doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But day after day the Daily Mail demands that Harman, her husband Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt say ‘sorry’. It’s the same kind of tactic they used on Ed Miliband back in September.

Conservatives have up to now attacked the BBC for not even mentioning the issue, understandably believing that if three Tory politicians had been accused of something similar the BBC might not have been so coy. We’ll never know. However, the BBC could defend its position by pointing out that these allegations are nothing new and were first aired back in 2009. That would be a sustainable editorial position.

But yesterday the game changed when Harriet Harman decided to break cover and respond to the allegations by giving the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg an interview. It turned out to be a bad move. Instead of saying that it was a clear mistake for the NCCL to allow the PIE to be an associate member, she prevaricated and appeared a little shifty. Not only that she compounded her error by accusing the Daily Mail of being hypocritical because it publishes pictures of bikini-clad young women on its website. Women, not girls. So instead of closing down the story, it has merely given all other media outlets the excuse to cover it on the basis that if Harriet Harman has spoken about it, it becomes a legitimate story.

Cue BBC overkill. It’s now leading bulletins on the Today Programme and 5 Live. I haven’t seen Sky News yet this morning, so I can’t comment on what they are doing but as it’s the lead story on their website it’s probable that it is leading their bulletins too.

I’ve steered clear of the story on my LBC show, not because of any desire to be politically correct, but because I genuinely don’t see this as a massive story. I see it as a politically motivated smear by a newspaper which is besmirching its own good name by running it day after day after day.

Does anyone seriously believe Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt have any paedophile sympathies? No, of course not. They worked for a ramshackle organisation which was run in an anarchic way. Just as anyone with dubious views can join a political party, anyone or any organisation with dubious views could join the NCCL. Does anyone seriously think that Harman, a lowly junior legal officer, had the power to expel a member who had legitimately joined? Presumably to do so would have meant changing the NCCL’s constitution. Perhaps she and her husband tried to do that. Who knows? But remember that one of the NCCL’s aims was to promote freedom of speech for everyone, no matter how vile their views.

The biggest mistake Harriet Harman has made was to give that interview to Newsnight. All it succeeded in doing was fanning the story’s flames and giving other media organisations and newspapers to excuse they needed to cover it. Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but the overblown and blanket coverage it is getting is so out of proportion to the lack of coverage it got yesterday, that editors all over the place, but especially the BBC, would do well to examine why they are doing what they are doing. Are they doing this because it is such an important story or because of their collective feeling of guilt that maybe they should have given it some coverage well before today?

When I go into LBC today and we start planning my Drive programme, it will be interesting to see how the story has developed during the day. If I cover it at all – and at the moment my feeling is that I’d rather not – it will be looking at the behaviour of the Daily Mail, more than the behaviour of Harriet Harman. No doubt I will get a shedload of abuse for it, but hey – broad shoulders and all that.