Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Newspaper editors are being urged by the shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman to stop being so defensive and instead “lay their cards on the table” by revealing precisely what mechanism they would accept for handling complaints against the press and for providing the public with a right of redress.

Ms Harman is calling on the government to be equally forthright in taking steps at once to impose new restraints on media ownership to ensure that proprietors face a “fit and proper person” test before the regulator Ofcom considers any future take-over bids.

Her pleas for immediate action were echoed by speakers supporting the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Campaign at an all day conference – Taking on the Media Barons – which was held in London at the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress (17.3.2012).

Several groups, including the CPBF and the Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform, urged the mobilisation of a concerted campaign to secure a 15 per cent cap on the future market share to be held by any media proprietor.

Earlier, in opening the conference, Ms Harman indicated that Labour preferred to await the outcome of both the Leveson Inquiry and an Ofcom review before taking a view on the future balance of media ownership but she made it clear the party leadership was determined to secure far lower limits and a sizeable reduction in Rupert Murdoch’s holdings in press and television.

Ms Harman told the conference she could not ignore the Labour Party’s own “political baggage” when it came to considering the relationship between ministers and News International – and as the day progressed speakers reminded the conference time and again of the often covert concessions agreed by Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to appease the Murdoch press.

Any reporter who has ever had to work in competition with the Sun has at last had confirmed what we have always suspected:  the Sun’s unerring success in delivering exclusive stories was not always down journalistic initiative but all too often was the result of being able to offer folding money to reward contacts.

As Sue Akers gave her evidence to the Leveson Inquiry (27.2.2012) replaying in my mind were the many occasions when a disclosure by the Sun made my own story redundant; all my efforts were suddenly overtaken by sensational inside information.

In her evidence, the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of phone-hacking inquiries, described how the Metropolitan Police had discovered that the Sun had established a network of corrupt officials in public life; how, for example, over several years one contact was paid in excess of £80,000; and how one of nine arrested Sun journalists received £150,000 in cash to reimburse sources, a number of whom were public officials.

Many is the time I have had to follow up a Sun exclusive and marvelled at the paper’s ability to prize out information from what appeared to me and other rival journalists to be an impenetrable wall of silence.

No wonder Rupert Murdoch was so anxious to beat the gun with the launch of the Sun on Sunday (26.2.2012) and therefore pre-empt the first day of Police evidence to the Leveson Inquiry; nor was it a surprise that the paper should have set out in such detail its commitment in future to its journalists maintaining the highest “ethical behaviour.”

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.

The actor Hugh Grant – dubbed the “Poster Boy” of the Hacked Off campaign by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail – is confident the most important work of the Leveson Inquiry has yet to come. He considers that an investigation into possible corruption between press and police and the extent of collusion between media proprietors and politicians is of far greater significance than the hacking of celebrities’ phones.

Unknown to the producers of Radio 4’s Today programme when Grant’s pre-recorded interview was being broadcast (11.2.2012), the Metropolitan Police had already begun arresting another five of the Sun’s leading journalists as part of Operation Elveden, its investigation into alleged illegal payments to police officers and other public officials.

The sheer number of arrests from the staff of both the Sun and former News of the World – along with the earlier arrests of other former News International executives such as Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – has ramped up yet again the possibility of extensive collateral damage to the Prime Minister David Cameron and other Conservative ministers in the coalition government.

Fearing no doubt that he might be asked on the Andrew Marr Show (12.2.2012) about the awkward questions which politicians might face when they have to appear before the Leveson Inquiry, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, looked visibly relaxed when Marr confined himself to questions about the regulation of the press.

Hunt turned in a confident performance insisting that the consensus which was emerging over the need for a much tougher industry-led system of press regulation vindicated the Prime Minister’s decision to establish the Leveson Inquiry in the wake of the revelations about the hacking of the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Later Hunt told the World This Weekend (12.2.2012) that he wanted to see a “modern regulatory system” which allowed newspapers to be successful and profitable in the internet age. But the Secretary of State was not asked – and did not proffer – any kind of assurance that the UK’s system for controlling media ownership would be free from political interference by the government of the day.

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.