There was little comfort for Lord Justice Leveson and the prospects for his inquiry into media ethics at the launch of a new book The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial. A panel of journalists and former editors thought the judge was probably misguided in believing that he could provide lasting solutions.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, recalled that there had already been three major inquiries into press standards since the World War II and the pattern would probably continue.
“Lord Justice Leveson says he wants his inquiry to be the end of it, not just a footnote for academics. But perhaps we have to go through this exercise every decade or so...because there is an argument that the press should be drinking in the last chance saloon all the time; that’s where journalists should always be.”
Satchwell’s hope that the press would not be cowed by the “beefed-up form of regulation” which the judge had in mind was shared by the other panellists on the Media Society’s platform at the Coventry University London Campus (7.2.2012)
But there was considerable concern about the effectiveness of the inquiry. Paul Connew, an ex-deputy editor of the News of the World and former editor of the Sunday Mirror, said the proceedings had become a pantomime because the witnesses being called by the judge could not answer crucial questions because of pending inquiries by the Metropolitan Police into phone hacking.
He feared the “raucous irreverence” of the tabloid press, which was an important part of British life, would be stifled by the sledgehammer of the inquiry. The blame for the unlawful phone hacking should lie with editorial executives at News International during the three years when “the lunatics took charge of the asylum.”
Kevin Marsh, former editor of Today and ex-editor of the BBC College of Journalism, urged the inquiry to recommend a mechanism which called for greater accountability on the part of the press coupled with a regulatory regime which had investigative functions and powers and the right to impose fines. But he hoped any new system had an “arms-length statutory relationship” and was staffed predominantly with lay people.
Phil Harding, a former controller of editorial policy at the BBC, agreed that media accountability was a key issue. For the first time Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail and also the editors of News International titles such as The Times and the Sun were being forced to account for their actions in front of a judge and in public.
He said during his years as editor of Today he had tried to gets the likes of James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and Adny Coulson to be interviewed on the programme but they always refused, enjoying “power without responsibility.”
Connew also backed a “beefed-up regulatory arm” for a new press standards body with the power to impose fines and if necessary front-page corrections and apologies.
Satchwell’s closing thought was that politicians should not underestimate the “salutary lesson” which had already been learned by the tabloid press in the wake of the phone-hacking investigations.
“It really is incredible how few classic tabloid stories have appeared in recent months...for example stories which might have appeared over the circumstances surrounding the death of the Wales football manager Gary Speed.”
Connew agreed that there had been a noticeable change; he cited the restraint shown by newspapers when reporting the personal relationship surrounding the downfall of the former Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox.
But there was an equally strong warning that this chilling effect must not go too far. Harding reminded the audience that without what some believed was the intrusive reporting into the affair involving the former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett the public would not have learned of the fast-tracking of an immigration application which led to his downfall.
Read in full Nicholas Jones’ chapter – “How did a British Prime Minister come to depend on an ex-editor of the News of the World? – in The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, to be published by Arima Publishing, Bury St Edmunds, February 2012.