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The Dog that Didn’t Bark - Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson look surprised
Last updated April 2016

The Dog that Didn’t Bark

In the light of the Whittingdale scandal, can charities rely on IPSO to represent them fairly?

You may recall that Sherlock Holmes investigated the disappearance of a famous racehorse the night before a race and the murder of the horse’s trainer. His investigation led to a famous conversation:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The fact that the dog did not bark when expected to led Holmes to the conclusion that the evildoer was a not a stranger to the dog, but someone the dog recognised and thus would not cause him to bark.

The story came to mind while pondering whether the stream of negative media coverage of charitable activity signifies a permanent shift of affairs for which we should be poised to respond or a temporary blip whilst other matters seem less attractive to the media spotlight.

Following widespread phone-hacking by journalists at the News of the World and other newspapers, David Cameron set up a public inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Leveson, who found that the existing Press Complaints Commission was not fit for purpose.

After much toing and froing about the extent of statutory regulation, the press then went ahead with establishing a new regulator of their own. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was established in September 2014 following the winding up of the PCC.

War on Want is the latest charity to take a complaint to IPSO following a story in the Daily Telegraph alleging anti-Semitism at the organisation. John Hilary, executive director said he will do ‘whatever it takes’, up to and including legal action, to get a full retraction from the paper. “Every day that piece is up there it reinforces a falsehood”.

Victims of media abuse such as relatives of those killed in the Hillsborough disaster, the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, and Christopher Jefferies, wrongly accused of murder, have had their reputations traduced by journalists cutting corners at best, downright lying at worst.

But it is also vital that we uphold free speech and support the bravery of editors in defending our values and freedoms. They fear, with reason, giving power to Parliament to limit journalist freedom to investigate and expose wrong doing and corruption. We should not sleepwalk into giving up our hard won liberties.

The Sinyavsky–Daniel trial is a salutary tale of a time not that long ago in a land not that far away. Taking place in Moscow in 1966, it was the first Soviet show trial during which writers were openly convicted solely for their literary work and for the opinions of their fictional characters.

Their offence was “agitation or propaganda carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening of the Soviet regime or of committing particular, especially dangerous crimes against the state, or the circulation, for the same purpose of slanderous fabrications which defame the Soviet state and social system, or the circulation or preparation or keeping, for the same purposes, of literature with such content”.

The court sentenced Sinyavsky to seven years in strict-regime labour camp, Daniel to five years. Their consolation was to foster an increase in samizdat journalism that provided an alternative to state-controlled media and which became important to the emerging dissident movement.

We take freedom of expression for granted in this country but there is a constant drumbeat from government to curtail this right. Whilst not anywhere near the scale of state oppression, the recent clumsy attempts to restrain charities from lobbying and campaigning is a case in point.

We have the ridiculous notion of a government announcing in the House of Lords recently that the recipients of government grants can continue to discuss the findings of publicly-funded research with the government, parliament or in the media, after previously suggesting that central government grant agreements would prevent such funds from being used to lobby or attempt to influence parliament, local government or political parties.

Culture secretary John Whittingdale, the man put in charge of media regulation by David Cameron, has very recently confirmed that he is “not minded” to implement the Leveson recommendations on press regulation in full but insisted that the controversial imposition of further costs on newspapers was still “under consideration”.

Whittingdale! Wasn’t that the Johnny recently not subject to media scrutiny himself? Well yes and no. And that m’lud appears to be the point.

Mr Whittingdale, apparently in pursuit of his public duties, accepted free hospitality at a London lap dancing club while he was chairing a Commons select committee in 2008. Courtesy of the Lap Dancing Association he dined with the club owner and two dancers and spent some time on the dancefloor. This only came out after the BBC had discovered that Whittingdale had a relationship with a woman he did not realise was a sex worker, who worked as a dominatrix in a “dungeon” in west London who accompanied him on an official visit to the MTV music awards in Amsterdam.

At the time four national newspapers had investigated the story and all decided there was no public interest in the story and were jolly well not going to print it.

That’s the sound of a dog not barking.

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