I remember it well. 0745. The story had been running since my first bulletin at 0600 when the phone call came. A press officer demanding that I don’t run the story at 0800, and if I did there would “be consequences”. Being a good journalist (and trusting the rather more senior journalist who had written the story), that call only made me even more determined to run it. The press officer on the phone even tried the famous line with me : “Look, I used to be a journalist.” But you’re not now.
Being bullied into pulling stories is par for the course in our game, increasingly so in the digital world where content can be published instantaneously. And it’s always a calculated risk. Is the story so important that you run the possibility of damaging your relationship with a particular organisation? Do you need them more than they need you? A former communications director once “did an Alistair Campbell” on me, barking at me outside my own news studio, insistent that the lead on my main bulletin was a “non story”.
But it’s quite a different matter if your boss orders you to drop a story. Especially if your boss is in charge of the country’s largest commercial radio network. The Guardian’s story, originating from Private Eye, reports that Global Radio told its newsrooms to pull the controversial story of how HSBC helped some of its clients to dodge tax. The regulator OFCOM confirmed that the order came at 0845 on the day the story broke, but that coverage resumed some days later.
Both the Eye and the Guardian link the order to the fact that Global’s boss happens to be an incredibly wealthy individual, leaving readers to draw the obvious conclusions. But is it that obvious? Global has told OFCOM the story was dropped for “editorial reasons” – reasons that have yet to be published.
I’ve been in BBC newsrooms where an apparently big, front page newspaper story has been initially reported and then quickly dropped. The reasons might be legal, or factual. It may well be that a story is dropped for a while until the full facts can be established. Such editorial decisions are rarely made public, unless a significant complaint is made. Goodness knows, the Corporation is more than accustomed to those – whole inquiries have ensued over one person’s call on stories.
It’s easily to jump to a particular conclusion here. Nasty commercial radio with its nasty commercial interests. But I happen to know some of those who work for Global, who would be just as appalled as anyone to think their own editorial judgment could be skewed by a greedy boss. Especially one who is genuinely passionate about his product, which is accountable to a regulator.
Ultimately, editorial independence needs to remain a cornerstone of newsrooms, whatever other commercial interests are in play. Naturally I’m biased, but I’d hope to be able to trust a broadcast journalist to do the right thing. That might mean whistleblowing or – as I did many years ago – having a robust conversation with a Sales Director.
It might not make you popular, but that’s never been a qualification for our profession.