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.
No Sun reader is left in any doubt: “We are always after good stories – and we pay big money for them every day. Celebrity, a human interest story, scandal or anything else that you think the good people of Britain would want to read about.”
The same goes for the Daily Mirror: “We pay for news and information. Call us free. You can send mobile phone pictures to us. “
The level of payments being referred to by prosecuting counsel Andrew Edis QC as the phone hacking and bribery case has progressed has only served to highlight the failure of the Leveson Inquiry to probe the custom and practice behind what for most reporters is a no go area: even among colleagues there are few if any journalists who would ever reveal the precise nature of their relationship with their individual sources and contacts.
Nonetheless when journalists who insist they have never ever paid for information are put on the spot, and asked if they really would really turn down a story in the public interest, some do hedge their bets; and thanks to the Leveson Inquiry, the Crown Prosecution Service has issued clearer guidance on how prosecutors should deal with cases of law-breaking by journalists which might be outweighed – and thus justified -- by the “overall criminality” they reveal.
Even so I consider Lord Justice Leveson and his legal team did not fulfil their remit: they were asked to “examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press”. When he gave evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee in October 2013, Leveson insisted the advantage of having a judge-led inquiry like his was his experience as a “fact finder” of past events.
But in the event the judge and his legal counsel skirted around one of the great unmentionables and most troubling characteristic of British tabloid journalism: the tradition of paying cash for stories based on illicit information. Why did the red tops become so dependent on hiring middlemen as sleuths to hunt for sleaze?
Time and again Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay QC failed to drill down into the roots of cheque-book journalism and the lengths to which Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers had gone to stand up “kiss and tells” and other exclusives in the four decades since his original purchase of the News of the World in 1969.
Were staff cuts to blame? Were journalists finding they had less and less time to do their own work and as a result were being encouraged to buy in stories? Did their editors think the cheque book was the only answer?
Readers knew little of the bidding war that drove journalists to take ever greater risks and sadly they were none the wiser after the Leveson Inquiry published its report.
During the two days he gave evidence to the inquiry in April 2012 Murdoch was not challenged over his role in financing the purchase of private information. He admitted failings in his corporate governance of the News of the World; he told the judge that paying police officers for information was “wrong” but at no point was he asked about the culture and ethics of offering cash for stories or challenged as to why this had become commonplace in the tabloids but frowned upon in much of the quality press.
I think the 2005 British Press Awards were probably the high-water mark of paid for journalism. The News of the World was named Newspaper of the Year and also won Scoop of the Year for its 2004 exclusives on the secret affairs of the footballer David Beckham, the ex-England manager Sven- Goran Eriksson and the former Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Subsequently in a secretly-recorded conversion he had with Sun journalists in March 2013, Murdoch defended custom and practice at the News International and claimed that payments to police officers were made by “every newspaper” in Fleet Street.
His assertion was challenged in his column in the Observer by the former editor of The Guardian, Peter Preston: “That was never true on the Guardian and surely is not on many more.” Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter, was adamant: “I have never paid for stories, I never would.”
Although I too have never paid for information for my stories – and I am from a family of four generations of journalists who I am sure would all say the same – I do recognise there might be exceptions.
For example I support the Daily Telegraph’s decision in 2009 to pay £110,000 for the stolen computer disk which allowed its journalists to examine one a half million receipts for MPs’ expenses. Four MPs and two peers ended up in prison on fraud charges and few if any journalists or members of the public would question the Telegraph’s ethics. Both the Police and Crown Prosecution Service took no action over what so patently was an example of investigative journalism in the public interest.
Similarly the Crown Prosecution Service took no action after it was revealed a Sky News reporter had hacked into emails between Anne Darwin and her husband John who were both sent to prison for fraud after he faked his death by disappearing in a canoe and she claimed £250,000 in insurance and pension payments.
Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, also agreed to take no action but said that the action of Sky News in hacking the Darwins’ emails had been at the “boundaries of what is appropriate.”
To his credit Lord Justice Leveson did recommend legal clarification so that journalists would know when they can cross the line. He called for guidelines for prosecutors to indicate where the public interest was served by journalistic investigations which might break the law but where reporting “outweighs criminality.”
Keir Starmer QC, the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, issued new guidance in October 2013: “If an offence has been committed, we then say: ‘Did the public interest in what the journalist was trying to achieve outweigh the overall criminality?”
Clearly news outlets have to think carefully before authorising potential law breaking; journalists and their editors have to be prepared to face the consequences, especially when purchasing illicit data.
While the legal boundaries are clearer for journalists as a result of the Leveson Inquiry, the same cannot be said when it comes to the ethical dilemma over whether to pay cash to an informant.
More than any other press proprietor Rupert Murdoch created a market place in information and drove up the going rate for purchasing exclusive stories. What is Murdoch’s legacy? Has he poisoned the well of British journalism?
Unhappily for my generation of reporters who trained on local evening and weekly newspapers in the heyday of the local press, we are now being told that the culture of paying for information has had a deleterious effect on local newsgathering.
There is a widespread notion that even journalists on local newspapers or radio stations have a budget to pay for stories. It is commonplace for local reporters, when seeking information or interviews, to be asked “How much? What’s it worth?”
In my day supplying information to a local newspaper was never considered a financial transaction. Most of my contacts were only too happy to talk to a local reporter and usually on the record. They took pride in being quoted in local press and keen to fulfil their role in ensuring the fullest possible reporting of local affairs.
Illustrations: Independent (30.10.2013) and Sun