Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Rather overlooked in Trevor Kavanagh’s anguished protest over the way the Metropolitan Police treated Sun journalists like members of “an organised crime gang” was his frank, but perhaps inadvertent, admission that paying cash for stories had become a way of life for the editorial executives of the Murdoch press.

Kavanagh asserted – without a shred of evidence – that it was “a standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad” – that sometimes “money changes hands” when journalists acquire information.

As a family member of what are now four generations of journalists I would like to rebut the claims of Kavanagh and the rest of the “greatest legends in Fleet Street” on whose behalf he purports to speak: there are thousands of British journalists who have never ever paid for stories in the way Sun’s former political commentator suggests.

Obviously Kavanagh & Co just do not understand that the way Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers monetised the gathering of stories and information has demeaned the great traditions of British journalism.  And, it may come as a surprise to the “greatest legends of Fleet Street” that likewise newspapers in many other democratic countries do not engage in the trade of buying up stories for cash.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the sleazy trade which the News of the World encouraged under its former editor Andy Coulson were the advertisements which appeared every Sunday urging readers to earn “a wedge of wonga” by selling camera phone photos of celebrities misbehaving.

Perhaps Kavanagh and his Fleet Street “legends” would like to compare and contrast the News of the World’s 2004 guidance on what to snap with the codes of conduct of the National Union of Journalists and the Press Complaints Commission.

 

Kavanagh’s attack on the Metropolitan Police and his defence of the Sun’s journalists (Sun, 13 February, 2012) reveals the same blind spot which afflicted his boss Rebekah Brooks when she appeared before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in 2003 and blurted out: “Yes, we have paid police for information in the past” – an admission which Andy Coulson tried desperately to defuse.

In my opinion Kavanagh’s own goal in his commentary in the Sun is equally revealing when he asserts that when gathering stories – and this applies to “all newspapers through the ages” – “sometimes money changes hands.”

“This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.  There is nothing disreputable about it. And, as far as we know at this stage, nothing illegal.”

While the jury may be out on the question of illegality, there is certainly every justification in challenging the ethics of the trade which the News of the World for one was doing everything it could to encourage.  Take this “cut and keep” guide on the camera phone photos which could earn readers “a wedge of wonga”:

“We pay big money for sizzling shots of showbiz love-cheats doing what they shouldn’t ought to. A-listers looking the worse for wear or Premiership idolds on the lash the night before a crucial game.

“Recently we’ve brought you fantastic pictures of Robbie Williams’ latest girl friend...We’ve also had pictures of Charlotte Church and ---- on the razzle.

“Just have your camera phone handy when you’re out on the town and watch for the big names. Then simply point and shoot and get in touch with us.” (News of the World advertisement, 24 October, 2004)

The News of the World made no mention of cautionary words of advice contained in the code of conducts which journalists are expected to observe:

“A journalist: Obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means...Does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.” (Code of conduct, National Union of Journalists)

“Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent...It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent. Note: Private places are public or private property when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.” (Code of practice, Press Complaints Commission)

The News of the World’s promise to “flash the cash” for photos of celebs “looking the worse for wear” was subsequently toned down – and then removed altogether – but not before Coulson’s paper was declared Newspaper of the Year at the 2005 British Press Awards.

The awards ceremony, in March 2005, was the pinnacle of Coulson’s career after almost twenty years of hard graft with the Murdoch press and on the back of his success he gave a rare interview to the London Evening Standard in which he declared that Princes William and Harry were fair game for tabloid reporting.

“The royals shouldn’t be treated any differently to anyone else...the kids are of an age now where they have no special rights.”  Eighteen months later Clive Goodman and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested for tapping into the mobile phones of the princes’ royal aides.

Another give-away remark after the 2005 awards ceremony was from the then chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck who broke the story of David Beckham’s alleged affair with Rebbeca Loos after she was paid a reported £300,000 for her story: “To be brutally honest, we pay big money for big stories.”

Another more recent indication of the way the purchase of stories and information became embedded within Fleet Street’s finest – but not among the rest of the British press – was in the evidence given by the Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre to the Leveson Inquiry.

He described how journalists employed by the national press began to turn increasingly to outside agencies to buy up potentially private data about the people they were investigating.   Again there was no real acknowledgement that Fleet Street’s practices were not commonplace among journalists but a short cut which could only be afforded by the privileged few who worked for the newspapers with the deepest pockets.

In his testimony Dacre acknowledged that initially he was not aware of the degree to which his reporters became so reliant on search and inquiry agents.

“For years newspapers had shelves of directories, phone books etc to get addresses...for births, marriages and deaths you went to Somerset House...Suddenly, early in the new century, technology provided journalists with the ability to get information more quickly and efficiently...I would say that information could all be obtained legally...this was just a quick and easy way.”

In reply to questions from Robert Jay QC and Lord Justice Leveson, Dacre admitted that at the time the Daily Mail, like other national newspapers, had a “hazy understanding” of the Data Protection Act and did not realise that an agent using this “quick way to get phone numbers and addresses to corroborate stories” might be acting illegally.

Dacre did not accept that this was the same as saying Daily Mail journalists had been “acting illegally” but search and inquiry agencies were no longer used by the paper and it was written into to a journalist’s contract of employment that they had to observe the Data Protection Act. (Leveson Inquiry, 6 February, 2012)

The phone hacking scandal has forced the likes of Trevor Kavanagh and Paul Dacre to try to justify practices which have set the national press apart from the great swathe of journalists who are employed by regional and local newspapers, magazines and periodicals and radio and television. 

While there might well be arrangements for paying for exclusive interviews and articles, there is no budget to pay for tip offs or for the routine purchase of private data and information. What might have been common practice at News International was certainly not commonplace in the daily life of the vast bulk of Britain’s journalists.

Illustrations: Sun 13 February, 2012; London Evening Standard, 16 March, 2005;  News of the World, 24 October, 2004.

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