Nick Jones

Leveson Inquiry

For any student of the British press the endless barrage of red-top headlines that fills the stage at the National Theatre is often as funny, or sometimes even funnier, than the script lines of Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire on tabloid journalism and the phone-hacking trial.

Constantly updated front pages from The Free Press and its imaginary competitors hark back to the heyday of the manufactured story-line and the glory days of classic Sun scoops such as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.   

Rebekah Brooks (acquitted) and Andy Coulson (convicted) are two unspoken names that are both front of stage in the mind of the audience but so too should be those of the ex-editor of the Sun,  Kelvin MacKenzie, and the former publicist Max Clifford, whose string of “exclusives” once dominated Fleet Street.

The MacKenzie-Clifford production line of kiss-and-tell stories, and the gob-smacking headlines that went with them, helped to generate an insatiable appetite for celebrity scandal that required ever-more intrusive forms of journalism and heralded the descent into the hacking of messages left on mobile phones.

A brash inventiveness among headline writers and the ingenuity and cunning of journalists who write exclusives sourced only on the words of “An onlooker said...” are characteristics that have become the hallmark of the British tabloid press.

Rebekah Brooks’ acquittal on the charge of phone hacking will be interpreted by much of the newspaper industry as a vote of confidence in its decision to defy Parliament and to press ahead with the launch in the autumn of a new, independent press regulator.

“Keep Out” could almost be the caption below the Sun’s front page welcoming what is said were “a string of not guilty verdicts” after a trial that had been “one of the longest and most expensive in British criminal history”.

Brooks’ not guilty verdict was greeted with great relief by those newspaper proprietors and editors who have turned their back on the royal charter on press regulation that gained cross-party support in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

Andy Coulson’s conviction for conspiracy to hack phones had been widely expected among fellow journalists. But his finding of guilt – and guilty pleas from five others who were involved – has largely contained fallout from the case within the confines of journalists employed on the now defunct News of the World.  

David Cameron’s swift apology for his “bad decision” in 2007 for having given Coulson a second chance by appointing him the Conservative Party’s pre-election publicity chief, and later taking him into Downing Street as the government’s director of communications, was aimed a drawing a line under the affair.

As the prosecution continues to present its evidence at the Old Bailey in the case alleging phone hacking and the bribing of public officials, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only is British justice on trial but also journalism itself.

Repeated references have been made to the payments which it is alleged were made to sources who supplied information to the Sun and the News of the World.

Paying cash to get facts to support a reporter’s story line is a practice which splits journalistic opinion.

Indeed there could hardly be a clearer dividing line: some reporters are prepared to pay for information and justify their conduct on the grounds that sometimes this may be the only way to stand up stories which are in the public interest. 

But on the other hand there are those journalists who say they have never offered money to informants -- and never would – and who insist they would always try to rely on journalistic endeavour rather than cash or the cheque book.

Once the Queen had placed her seal of approval on the politically-approved version of the royal charter for press regulation there must have been a collective sigh of relief among the three party leaders.

Almost by a whisker they had ensured that radio and television reports of the opening of the prosecution’s case in the phone hacking trial would be balanced by the news that the politicians had delivered on their promise to respond to the Leveson Inquiry.

But the Privy Council’s rendezvous with Queen at Buckingham Palace was nothing more than an empty gesture dressed up in the guise of some pretty clumsy news management.

When it came to influencing the headlines – and that is what it was all about – the message from the leadership of the three main parties was pretty clear: “We’ve proved we can stand up to the press on behalf of the public.  We’ve done our bit.”

Yet in reality the political leaders know they are simply treading water. The ball remains very firmly in the hands of newspaper and magazine proprietors who will carry on regardless in establishing their Leveson-style regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Across the country local press reporters will have every reason to reflect on the long-term impact of Rupert Murdoch’s forty-year stewardship of some of Britain’s most popular daily and Sunday newspapers.

Whether for or against the introduction of a Leveson-style press regulator, journalists past and present will have a view as the evidence unfolds during the News of the World phone hacking trial at the Old Bailey which is due to start on Monday 28 October.

Murdoch’s lasting impact on British journalism is that he more than any other proprietor has been responsible for encouraging the monetisation of the most basic function of our trade – the gathering of news.

Reporters of my generation, who trained on local evening and weekly newspapers, were not accustomed to being asked: “How much?” “What’s it worth?” whenever they sought interviews or photographs.

Local journalists tell me such routines are a commonplace experience today.  People involved in human interest stories realise their contributions might have a value even though their assistance in providing information to the local newspaper might be for the local good, perhaps preventing mishaps or misfortune for neighbours or other residents.

In one of the tetchiest exchanges during a select committee hearing before MPs, Lord Justice Leveson refused to get drawn into the way some tabloid newspapers continue to promise pay for information for news stories – a practice which represents one of the starkest ethical divides among British journalists.

Tracey Crouch, Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, tried without success to get the judge to comment on the conduct of those national newspapers which “advertise openly to pay for stories”.  Earlier in the exchange she had asked whether he thought there were circumstances where “payment for a story is justified.”

But she met a point-blank refusal from Sir Brian Leveson who was answering questions from members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Media, Culture and Sport (10.10.2013) about the wider impasse between politicians and the newspaper industry over securing approval for a royal charter on press regulation.

Although he had been asked by the Prime Minister to “inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press”, the judge’s report made no recommendations on evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry about a deeply-embedded culture of cash payment for stories.

When the News of the World phone hacking trial opens at the Old Bailey in early September, it will highlight one of the great taboos of British journalism. How much freedom – if any – should reporters have to pay for the information which they think they might need for their stories?  And perhaps more importantly, should they be able to finance others to potentially break the law on their behalf?

Within the news media there is possibly no starker ethical split than the divide between those journalists who are – or certainly have been – happy to hand over cash for information, even perhaps purchasing data gained by illicit means, and on the other hand, those reporters who under no circumstances would agree to fund such transactions.

Most journalists rarely speak openly about their sources of information; their relationship with their informants is usually a closed book even to colleagues and friends.

But as the evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry demonstrated so clearly Rupert Murdoch’s journalists did have access to what Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers described as a cash payment process which allowed for the delivery of “regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money” to their sources of information.  She told the Leveson Inquiry such payments were authorised at “a very senior level” in News International.

Sue Akers’ public confirmation of what appeared to have become custom and practice at the Sun and the News of the World touched on one of the great unmentionables of Fleet Street journalism. 

Hacked Off and other pressure groups campaigning for the introduction of a Leveson-style press regulator are confident there will be fresh opportunities to “crank up the pressure” against the delaying tactics of press proprietors and Conservative politicians.

Supporters of the victims of press intrusion and harassment believe the Secretary of State for Culture Maria Miller has become the captive of Pressbof, which has yet again defied a cross-party agreement and is now establishing its own independent organisation to monitor press standards.

Having already outwitted the government by getting ahead of Parliament with a rival royal charter on press regulation, Pressbof is now able to take advantage of a delay until October at the earliest before the Privy Council considers the royal charter which the party leaders agreed in March and which has the support of both the Commons and the Lords.

Brian Cathcart, a founder member of Hacked Off, told the annual meeting of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (13.7.2013) that it was now a question of “who governed the country”. Pressbof and its allies in the Conservative Party should not imagine that the will of Parliament could be ignored by a “tiny group of powerful vested interests who have wreaked havoc in the lives of ordinary people”.

Another hole-in-the-corner deal over press regulation has demonstrated yet again the ineptitude of Lord Justice Leveson in adopting a hands-off approach when he had an historic opportunity during his year-long inquiry to investigate potential collusion between politicians and media proprietors.

The conduit for the latest charade is the Privy Council – the age old institution which among its many roles is its use by ministers as a forum to help resolve conflicts of interest while keeping the state at arm’s length.

Discussions held on Privy Council terms are always off-the-record and such is the establishment’s reliance on a mechanism where negotiations can be conducted without incriminating finger prints that it was not even on the judge’s radar during his superficial examination of the culture of shadowy negotiations between the government of the day and the all-powerful media companies.

 Therefore there seems to be little chance of discovering who said what to whom and when in the lead-up to the surprise withdrawal of the Royal Charter on press regulation which had previously been agreed by the political parties. Instead the go ahead was given for consideration of a rival Royal Charter prepared by the newspaper industry.

The decision to postpone approval of the original Royal Charter was made only days before it was due to have been rubber stamped by the Privy Council in mid May 2013.

That was certainly what “Downing Street” had been briefing until the last-minute change of heart by the Prime Minister following what were said to have been behind-the-scenes pressure from “senior Conservatives”; it was then revealed by “government sources” that arrangements had in fact been made for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to put the industry’s alternative Royal Charter out for consultation..

 

Except for a few passing references the BBC programme Rupert Murdoch: Battle with Britain made no attempt to examine how over the last thirty years his two tabloid newspapers the Sun and the News of the World helped to establish what became a hidden underworld where journalists were encouraged to pay cash for private and often illicitly-gained information.

Steve Hewlett’s commentary as presenter reflected the positive impact of Murdoch’s success in transforming newspaper production and in developing his satellite television services like Sky News but the programme skated over the ethics of the Murdoch press and the potential long-term damage to British journalism.

Murdoch always had the deepest pockets when it came to buying up exclusive stories which for him became a winning formula as he demonstrated immediately after purchasing the News of the World in 1969 and paying £21,000 for the memoirs of Christine Keeler whose affair had forced the resignation of the cabinet minister John Profumo.

Hewlett said the Keeler story was a “classic Murdoch headline grabber”, selling an extra 150,000 copies, and it illustrated the way he shamelessly popularised news content and relied on a “no holds barred approach to eye-catching scoops.”

But except for a few short references to the phone hacking scandal which forced the closure of the News of the World and what the programme said was the existence of a “network of corrupt officials on the Sun’s payroll”, the programme (BBC 2, 28.4.2013) made no attempt to follow up the evidence to the Leveson Inquiry about the way “regular, frequent and sometimes significant” cash payments had been authorised at “a very senior level” within News International.