KISS GOODBYE TO JAMES DELINGPOLE
If you want to know what an ‘Ofcom for the press’ will do, ask me. The ‘reasonable’ restraints of Ofcom have resulted in a shocking restriction of free speech. Ofcom acts like the polite face of a left-Statist lynch mob.
Broadcasters are wary of incurring the wrath on Ofcom. They are nervous of the forced on-screen apologies (which can be cited in support of legal action against the channel), the hefty fines and the threat of having the channel shut down.
It is well known in the industry (ask any Channel Four lawyer) that if Ofcom receives a lot of complaints, it feels under pressure to uphold a couple. The regulator is anxious not to be portrayed as ‘toothless’. And Channel Four and other broadcasters know that if a programme rocks the boat (as mine tend to) they are likely to receive a lot of complaints (in my case from angry Guardian readers).
Very quickly it becomes a ‘brave’ decision to commission a programme that rocks the boat. A commissioning editor might get away with one or two minor Ofcom decisions against them, but any more and they jeopardise their career. They will not advance to higher management. They may have to resign. Film-makers, for their part, risk their careers every time they make a film that goes against the consensus or upsets vocal lobby groups. I have been warned countless times that I must be mad for daring to take on the greens, or for making shows demanding radical cuts in public spending. (After The Great Global Warming Swindle it was three years before Channel Four felt able to commission another film from me). These shows invite complaints to Ofcom, and Ofcom judgments ruin careers.
Ofcom's regulations may seem perfectly ‘reasonable’ on the written page, but their effect is far from reasonable in practice and, for all the reassurances of our nice reasonable Statist politicians, they kill dead free speech.
Let us take, for example, Ofcom’s demand for ‘balance’. Sounds eminently reasonable. Who could argue against it? I recently made a film for Channel Four (a ‘brave’ commission) called Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story. For this film I interviewed a whole load of MPs and asked them if they knew the size of the official national debt, and the difference between the debt and the deficit. As it happens, almost every Labour MP was utterly clueless, the Lib-Dem MPs were slightly less dim but not much, and the Tory MPs almost all had a very good idea of both.
But when my excellent Channel Four lawyer reviewed the show (the man is dedicated to keeping me in the industry despite my Kamikaze inclinations) he said it wouldn’t wash. For ‘balance’ we would need to make out that all MPs were equally stupid, which we did.
Behind ‘balance’ is a great deal of bias. Those who dominate public discourse get to shut out the critical voices. For example, all those TV and radio shows which take global warming as a fact, feel under no pressure to ‘balance’ their views with those of skeptics. But when I made The Great Global Warming Swindle I had to provide written proof to Ofcom that I had sought interviews with key global warming believers, and that they had, of their own choice, refused to take part. This was balance.
On the BBC’s Today programme politicians are regularly berated for not doing enough about this or that, or for threatening worthy projects with their cuts. How many times, in the past ten years, have you heard the Statist BBC reporters asking about the shocking levels of debt? Or demanding of politicians with new proposals: ‘Who’s paying for all this? Where’s all the money coming from?’ Where is the balance here?
A famous Supreme Court decision in America warned of the “chilling effect” of regulating free speech. Regulation, which seems perfectly ‘reasonable’ on paper, has devastating results. This form of the censorship is not obvious. It operates in large measure by inducing so-called 'self-censorship' or a wariness about speaking out. And this makes it all the more sinister and hard to counter. When we hear (as I did this morning) politicians declaring that the press should be ‘accountable’ (in a reasonable sort of way), it should induce panic.
In our newspapers, at the moment, we have fantastically popular, radical writers like James Delingpole and Janet Daley and Rod Liddle and Toby Young and Simon Heffer and Melanie Philips. I am often asked why, on our TVs, we don’t we see much of these enormously popular columnists.
The trouble is, if you allowed these writers to do on TV what they do in the papers, you would find yourself up to here in Ofcom complaints. And complaints lead to judgements. And judgements ruin careers. To give these people space on TV would be ‘brave’.
Mark my words, if there is an ‘Ofcom for the press’ you can kiss goodbye to the Rod Liddles and James Delingpoles. Harriet Harman may be pleased, but the rest of us should be very worried indeed.