British investigative journalism still an example to the world
- Category: General
Any understanding of the power of the British news media – and especially that of the national press – has to take into account the differences between journalism here in the UK and other comparable countries such as the USA or our nearest neighbours in Europe. In many ways British journalists are a race apart; they’re very tribal; they like to hunt as a pack once the chase has begun; and as our politicians are the first to acknowledge, they take no prisoners. The politics of Britain are shaped and influenced by the media in ways which other parliaments and legislators find hard to comprehend.
Leading newspapers around the world are in decline; sales are sliding inexorably downwards and younger readers in particular are migrating to the world of online journalism. British newspapers have been bruised too by the growth of the electronic media but they still retain a level of circulation and readership which allows them to punch above their weight. We have five national tabloid newspapers like the New York Post; we have five quality dailies up there with the New York Times and the Washington Post. We also have two vibrant free newspapers...which are bucking the trend and are now highly profitable.
By far the most important is the Metro which is now the third largest daily – after the Sun and the Daily Mail – and is said to be the biggest free in the world; 1.3 million copies are distributed free in fifty towns around the UK and it claims 3.4 million readers. Another ground-breaking free paper is the London Evening Standard – which can rightly claim to be a quality product – with a readership of 1.6million. The difference about these competing British newspapers is that they are a very upfront part of our daily commentary. A leading item on tv and radio breakfast shows is always the newspaper review.
Tune in tonight to the news channels or late-evening programmes and the front pages of the first editions of tomorrow’s newspapers are quoted as news items in themselves; Sky News has two half hour slots devoted to discussion about what tomorrow’s papers are saying. What makes these newspapers different from other countries is that the British press regularly dictates the news agenda; stories in the papers often dominate radio and television news and generate considerable online chatter.
Because the impact of what they say cannot be ignored the politicians at Westminster and government offices in Whitehall employ teams of spin doctors to manage – and they hope exploit – their day-to-day relationship with the press. Two examples spring immediately to mind to reinforce my point. British newspapers have a proud record when it comes to investigative journalism. Leading reporters – often alone among their colleagues in the sporting press of the world – have spent years digging into allegations of corruption within world football and the failure of the FIFA President Sepp Blatter to sort it out.
Blatter’s re-election unopposed as FIFA President –while at the same time condemning British journalists for their news sense and integrity – outraged editors and readers alike. The Daily Mirror published pictures of the cash being handed over. (31.5.2011); The Guardian ridiculed Blatter’s denials, “Crisis, What Crisis?” (31.5.2011); and the Sun took the award for the best play on words – “Despot The Difference” – under twin pictures of President Blatter and Colonel Gaddafi. (1.6.2011). Let us look at another example of the difference in editorial standards.
The journalists of France have always prided themselves on not prying into the private lives of politicians; it was only the crude Anglo-Saxon British press which intruded into the bedroom of Presidents and Prime Ministers, not the sophisticated journalists of Paris. That has all changed thanks to the scandal involving the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn who is now awaiting trial in New York. British journalists would never have allowed Strauss-Kahn’s romantic dalliances to have remained un-investigated and un-reported.
Nor would they have turned a blind eye to the extra-marital secrets of Presidents Giscard d’Estaing, Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac. No wonder the British papers are now the cheer leaders for the New York hotel domestics who are turning out to support the chambermaid who has alleged she was sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn. Of course America’s news media, just as in Britain, has feasted over the years on rich diet of sex scandals, whether it was Presidents Kennedy or Clinton or a mere congressman in New York.
But our journalists have a far greater addiction: the extra-marital affairs of our politicians -- just as with our Premier League footballers -- are rarely out of the news. Take these front pages from twenty years ago: “Minister of Fun and the Actress” (News of the World, 19.7.1992) – David Mellor was the Secretary of State for National Heritage – and he became the victim of a “kiss and tell” sting which produced some great headlines, “She Gave a great toe job” (Sun, 21.7.1992). Five years later another Conservative politician was in the frame.
“Tory MP two-times wife with under-age gay lover” (News of the World, 5.1.1997). Another “kiss and tell” was already stacking up: “Scandal of Tory MP’s mistress, 17” (Sun, 27.3.1997). We can roll forward a decade to the days when the Labour Party were in power. “Exclusive: Deputy Premier’s two-year fling with his secretary.” (Daily Mirror, 26.4.2006) These stories have one thing in common: they involve an aspect of British journalism which sets our press apart and which is especially troubling to the politicians.
Selling stories to newspapers is big business in Britain. Pick up the Sun and there are on page two is the advertisement: “Get cash for your stories...we pay big money for them every day....a story about a celebrity, a scandal, a human interest story, or any other great tip”. And once they have bought up a “kiss and tell” story newspapers like the Sun and News of the World will challenge in the courts any attempts by celebrities to obtain what are called super injunctions which are intended to protect the victims of media intrusion into private lives and keep their secrets secret.
Once a celebrity obtains court protection, the newspapers will go on challenging it in the courts, paying out thousands in legal fees to try to get it overturned. There is nowhere else in the world where the media is so aggressive in taking court action to protect what they believe is their right to publish stories in the public interest. “Kiss and tells” are great money spinners for the newspapers because they can be syndicated overseas for big fees. Another aspect of this trade in celebrity news and gossip has been the scandal of journalists and private investigators hacking into messages left on mobile phones.
After the interception of messages left for aides to Prince William and Prince Harry, a private investigator for the News of the World and the paper’s royal correspondent both ended up in prison. This whole scandal has just been re-opened and the Police are now investigating a mass of other cases involving celebrities, footballers, politicians and government ministers. Three more journalists on the News of the World have been arrested; Rupert Murdoch is setting aside millions of pounds to pay compensation to celebrities whose phones were hacked into.
By all accounts the Police are finding the evidence which will confirm what most journalists have always known – that pretty well all of the leading national newspapers have used private investigators to either hack into phones or get access to all sorts of private data such as police, bank and tax records and so on. At the heart of the scandal – of this corruption if you like – is this long-standing but shady tradition of our newspapers being prepared to pay hefty sums of money for private and secret information?
There is a dilemma here: sometimes the publication of information which has been obtained in this way is in the public interest. The classic example was over the scandal of the abuse of the expenses system for Members of Parliament – both MPs and peers in the House of Lords. Three MPs and one life peer have already been sent to prison for fraudulent expenses claims and more could follow. Yet the information – that forced the Police to act – only came to light after a classic example of the trade in information.
What happened was that some ex-soldiers who were providing security for House of Commons officials who were downloading data on MPs expenses were so outraged by what they saw they got a duplicate copy of the computer hard drive. It contained details of all the expenses claims for MPs going back for four years – one a half million separate receipts and documents. They sold this computer disc to the Daily Telegraph newspaper for £110,000 – and in doing say they triggered a parliamentary revolution – a modern day equivalent of Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The Daily Telegraph shocked the nation two years ago when it began publishing details of what the MPs were up to. The then Prime Minister Gordon Brown was first in the frame: “The Truth about the Cabinet’s expenses” (Daily Telegraph, 8.5.2009). One claim was for a duck house for the pond in an MP’s garden. What was also revealed was the motive for the leak: “MPs’ expenses leaked over failure to equip troops on front line” (25.9.2009). Even when the House authorities were forced into publishing the receipts almost everything was redacted (blacked out):
“Blackout: the great expenses cover-up” (19.6.2009) Within days of the first disclosures from this treasure chest of data, the Speaker of the House of Commons was under pressure to resign but he wasn’t going to budge. “Speaker says sorry but refuses to quit” (19.5.2009). But the public outrage – and embarrassment of MPs – was such that the Speaker could not survive. He was forced to resign the very next day – the first Speaker to be forced to step down in 300 years. “A very British revolution” (20.5.2009)
The difference between the expenses saga – where a newspaper had paid £110,000 for a copy of a stolen computer hard drive and the hacking into mobile phones was that the public interest test was overwhelming. When it comes to messages on phones, the journalists were on a fishing trip. But when it came to MPs they deserved it. What happened was that for years political correspondents have been investigating reports of MPs abusing their expenses but their inquiries have always been blocked.
The last Labour government brought in a Freedom of Information Act – it is not as effective as the legislation in the USA but it does provide a degree of access. The Act would have required the release of the information but what did the MPs do: they changed the law to exempt their expenses from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. That is why you will hardly find a journalist who does not support what the Daily Telegraph did; for once the sale of stolen data and publication was in the public interest. The public’s faith and respect for politicians really has taken a knock in Britain.
The three MPs who went to prison were making fraudulent claims for second homes, usually in their constituency. “The MP and the phantom £13,000 mortgage” (16.5.2009) was the first such case to be exposed. You heard mention of the phrase “public interest” – that is the defence the editors use. But I think – and you might think – that sometimes the newspapers are on dodgy ground. You are probably aware there are more CCTV cameras here in the UK than anywhere else in the world; their aim is to deter crime. But the pictures are another source of income for the unscrupulous.
There is quite a trade in purloined CCTV footage. “Cocaine Kate...supermodel Kate Moss snorts line after line” (Daily Mirror, 15.9.2005) or “Jagger’s girl caught having sex on CCTV” (News of the World, 20.2.2005). That story about Kate Moss got the gong at the British press awards for “Scoop of the year”. Another prize winner – “Front page of the year” – was awarded to the Sun for this scoop; “Harry the Nazi” (13.1.2005) This snap was taken by a guest at the party – who was then exposed by the Daily Mirror “Harry’s Traitor” (16.2.2005).
He was said to have been paid £12,000 for the photo – and the Sun made hundreds of thousands of pounds syndicating the picture round the world. The papers pay big money for mobile phone pictures – if you see a celebrity misbehaving, don’t forget those advertisements for “cash, cash, cash”. Our Press Complaints Commission is quite clear that invasions of privacy are not permitted. It says: “Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence...editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent”.
But the red star beside the rule gives the editors their get out: “There may be exceptions to the clauses where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.” The Press Complaints Commission is an example of self policing – it has no legal backing, it is an organisation which tries to enforce editorial standards on behalf of the newspapers – and it is the press which finances the PCC; they are if you like judge and jury. This lack of legal protection gets to the heart of the debate going on in Britain as to whether our media...and especially the national newspapers ...have too much power.
That debate will clearly be influenced by whatever happens in the ongoing scandal about phone hacking. There is undoubtedly public unease about the power of the press and how that impacts on our political because our media proprietors are particularly promiscuous when it comes to dispensing political patronage. The clearest example is that of Rupert Murdoch whose newspapers have in the last couple of decades switched from Conservative to Labour and then back to Conservative.
In terms of Prime Ministers, the Murdoch press backed Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, but then ahead of the 1997 general election abandoned Major and began supporting the Labour Party leader Tony Blair. Blair was then Leader of the Opposition but destined to become Prime Minister. The four Murdoch papers remained Labour supporting under Gordon Brown but then in the run-up to the 2010 general election abandoned Brown for our current Prime Minister David Cameron. The importance of this support cannot be underestimated.
The Sun sells nearly three million copies, claims a readership of nine million – and that is in a country of fifty to sixty million people, a significant impact by any standards. The election front pages of the Sun are out of this world: if you went to the most sycophantic newspaper in the most hard-line state you could hardly find better propaganda. This was the front page switching in Blair ahead of the 1997 general election: “The Sun Backs Blair” (18.3.1997). Take this front page from election day in 2005: “Come on You Reds” (Sun 5.5.2005)
Blair and his then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown were kitted out as footballers for Manchester United. Then the Sun ditched Brown ahead of the 2010 general election: “Labour’s Lost it” (30.9.2009). Here is the front page in support of David Cameron in the image of that famous Barrack Obama poster: “Our Only Hope” (Sun, 6.5.2010). Just for political balance here is the front-page of the only Labour-supporting tabloid the Daily Mirror: “Don’t let Cam Con You: Vote labour” (6.5.2010).
Murdoch gives his support for a purpose; in return he hopes to get commercial favours for his media empire. Currently he is awaiting government approval for full control of his satellite channel BSkyB. Some Freedom of Information documents released in 2008 – after Tony Blair had resigned – gave an insight into the collusion between Prime Ministers and Murdoch. This is an official, but previously un-published transcript of phone conversations in 10 Downing Street.
1998: Blair to Murdoch – the Prime Minister says he is “instinctively sympathetic” to helping Murdoch get approval for a BSkyB service in Italy which needs European approval. 2002: Murdoch to Blair shortly before the American led invasion of Iraq: Murdoch praised the Prime Minister for his position on Iraq and said his newspapers would strongly support Blair’s government on its foreign policy. The Sun has been unstinting in its support for British forces in Iraq and now Afghanistan. “Watch It...our boys off to battle” (28.10.2004) was one memorable headline.
My favourite was the Sun’s line support the Black Watch, a famous regiment: “We beat Napoleon, Kaiser and Hitler...it’s just another job.” (25.10.2004) Another front page supporting the heroics of “our boys” declared: “The Lions of Basra” (4.9.2007) or this one when the Sun sent out a team of reporters to Afghanistan: “The Sun takes on the Taliban”. The significance of this support should not be underestimated: a million people took to the streets to protest against British participation in the Iraq war, but most of the tabloids remained loyal to Blair and the troops and Labour were re-elected in 2005.
David Cameron is now getting that same unswerving support from the Sun on the coalition government’s attempt to reduce abuse of the welfare system and if necessary take on the trade unions if there are strikes in the coming months over the moves to cut the cost of public sector pensions by increasing contributions and the retirement age. British newspapers still wield considerable political influence and although social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook are now an essential tool for many politicians it is the press which often sets the agenda for the online conversation.
London is not only a world financial centre but also a global hub for the news media. What many of the journalists of Britain do best is add sensationalism, as well as the investigative journalism I have already mentioned. British stories go round the world – the website of the Daily Mail is one of the most popular in the United States for news about celebrities and the British royal family; the Guardian’s website provides the kind of international left-of-centre commentary which also has great international appeal around the world.
In Britain our public relations industry is one of the strongest in the world, thanks again to the vibrancy of the press. Protecting a company or a celebrity’s reputation in the face of the kind of attacks they can expect in a British tabloid is a test of any pr strategy. And the impact on politics is that our spin doctors are some of the toughest; they have to understand the mindset of tabloid journalists, and believe me they can stoop quite low if they are in pursuit of a story.
Nicholas Jones addressed the Hansard Scholars at the London School of Economics 19.6.2011