Main content

Vince Cable, media business and journalistic ethics

Torin Douglas

is the BBC's media correspondent. Twitter: @BBCTorinD

Tagged with:

Vince Cable's "wild remarks" - as the Sun calls them - raise all sorts of media issues.

Some are quite clear-cut. He was rightly removed from his quasi-judicial role in deciding whether News Corporation's bid for BSkyB should be allowed to go ahead. That job has been given to the Culture and Media Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, along with 70 civil servants responsible for communications takeover policy.

Mr Hunt has a very different view of Rupert Murdoch from Mr Cable. On his website, he reproduces a Broadcast interview in which he says: "What we should recognise is that he has probably done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person because of his huge investment in setting up Sky TV."

Mr Hunt has also said that many people believe the Murdoch empire already controls BSkyB, and questions whether a full takeover would make much difference - but he was careful to add that he was not prejudging the issue, on which he'll be advised by Ofcom. 

Questions have also been raised about the behaviour of the Daily Telegraph: first in securing Cable's indiscretions, then in not printing them. Did the paper act ethically in its use of undercover reporters and recordings to expose the private views of Vince Cable and other Liberal Democrat ministers? The Sun said Cable had made his remarks "in a sad bid to impress two young women", and printed their pictures.

Under the editors' code administered by the Press Complaints Commission, secret recordings can be justified if they're in the public interest. It says this can include: 

i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety 

ii) Protecting public health and safety 

iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

It's on the third of these that the Telegraph would seek to justify its action. On Radio 4's Today programme, newspaper columnists Peter Preston and Stephen Glover both said this was a borderline case, and there was a danger that MPs would not speak so freely to constituents if they feared they might be speaking to an undercover journalist.

Later, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, speaking personally, said that he felt the Telegraph had crossed a line (at the end of this discussion). 

Equally questionable, in some people's minds, was the Telegraph's decision not to publish Cable's remarks yesterday. Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, who broke the story after being given the Telegraph's recording and transcript by a whistleblower, wrote on his blog

"You have to draw your own conclusions about why the Telegraph would choose not to publish those remarks (although following my publication of them, the Telegraph has now published them). Some will notice that when it comes to opposition to Mr Murdoch's proposed takeover of Sky, there is a convergence of the Telegraph's views and Mr Cable's views." 

The Telegraph was one of several media organisations that wrote a letter to Mr Cable seeking to block the takeover bid. The media analyst Steve Hewlett told the BBC that, unless it could show it was planning to publish the remarks later, it could be accused of putting its commercial interests ahead of editorial ones. 

On Today, Peter Preston said he preferred to give the Telegraph the benefit of the doubt, because it had a mass of material that needed to be released in an orderly way. But in the Guardian, Dan Sabbagh wrote: "So incensed was a whistleblower at the Telegraph, that he or she contacted Robert Peston, business editor for BBC News. It was Peston - a former business editor at the Sunday Telegraph - who broke the story." 

Sabbagh claims that coverage of the News Corporation/BSkyB merger has been a sensitive subject for the Daily Telegraph for some time. And he quotes a fierce denial from a Telegraph spokesman that the story was suppressed: 

"It is utter nonsense to suggest that the Daily Telegraph did not publish the comments from Vince Cable on the Rupert Murdoch takeover of BSkyB for commercial reasons. It was an editorial decision to focus this morning on Cable's comments on the coalition because they were of wider interest to our readers. We have made it clear, in the paper, online and in broadcast interviews today, that we would be publishing further comments in the forthcoming days." 

Either way, it missed the scoop that forced Vince Cable to walk away from his "war on Rupert Murdoch".

Tagged with:

More Posts


Snow, cold and reason


Event: The Art of the Interview