Phone hacking at the News of the World was not simply the “tip of the iceberg of journalistic bad practice” but one of many damning “icebergs” which would be revealed by the Leveson Inquiry. This is the bleak assessment of Mark Lewis, solicitor for the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. He was at the forefront of the Hacked Off campaign for the widest possible investigation into the conduct of Rupert Murdoch’s journalists.
Lewis told the Westminster Media Forum (6.9.2011) that it was the revelation that messages left on Milly’s mobile phone had been intercepted which broke the “wall of silence” which had previously been maintained by News International and other media groups.
He believed that the deeper the investigations went “more and more” would be revealed about the bad practices which were first exposed by the Information Commissioner’s report into the use newspapers were making of private investigators.
Although there was evidence then of telephone hacking and the practice of “blagging” to discover private information such as medical records, most of the press ignored the Information Commissioner’s findings and the “wall of silence” was maintained.
Lewis claimed that some newspaper groups went to considerable lengths to cover up what was happening. “I used to get calls from their lawyers telling me that if you mention our clients, we will sue you.”
He criticised lawyers for Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, for not having been open minded and for not asking him to inform them of anything untoward which he discovered. Similarly the Mirror group would always insist that it was the practice of its journalists to follow the code of the Press Complaints Commission; they did not break the criminal law. But company was not prepared to say what might have happened in the past.
“I don’t think journalists want to be part of a rogue industry giving their colleagues a bad name. They want to investigate properly and have no wish to take action which breaks the law for no purpose other than to fit a story or to create a story.”
Lewis said the problem with the PCC was that it was only able to moderate small disputes. “When it was faced with a challenge of something going wrong in a newspaper group it ducked the opportunity to investigate and speak out. Instead it sided with its paymasters; it was in charge of self regulation and yet it failed.”
In his presentation to the seminar, Will Gore, public affairs director for the Press Complaints Commission, acknowledged that significant questions would have to be addressed if confidence was to be restored in the conduct of press regulation.
He identified five key issues which the PCC would need to consider:
· The PCC had the highest ratio of press to public members of any press regulation body in Europe but it was still not seen as being sufficiently independent.
· Is a voluntary system still sustainable given the withdrawal of Express newspapers from the PCC? How do you compel membership without legislation?
· Should there be a system of fines or other sanctions? Does the PCC need to adjudicate more quickly and secure a better system for publishing its decisions?
· Should a regulatory body like the PCC be merely a complaints body or a wider standards body
· How should the PCC be funded? And where should the funding come from?
Gore said many of the problems which the PCC had encountered resulted from the fact that it did not have the resources which were needed. But it had been effective in a “huge number of areas”. Since 2008 over 2,000 disputes had been settled to the satisfaction of complainants and it had issued over a hundred notices to newspapers to desist from harassment.
Dr Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, said he was heartened to hear that the PCC was asking the right questions about its remit. But what could the industry do if the Express newspapers did not co-operate? Could the industry agree on sanctions? And if the PCC was to secure proper independence, that could only be achieved by independence of funding.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, thought the answer to the problem posed by Express newspapers was to find an inducement which would ensure the full participation of the industry. He said the Society was against any restriction which interfered with freedom of expression but perhaps there could be an inducement which made membership of the PCC unavoidable.
“Perhaps the best inducement would be a system of press regulation which the public accepts, perhaps the stamp of approval of the PCC and a clear signal that newspapers were regulated by the PCC.
“Any kind of control or limitation which interferes with the freedom of expression is a step towards the licensing of newspapers. We have to put up with the licensing of television but you cannot have the licensing of either newspapers or journalism.”