Back in July, under increasing scrutiny for his own dubious connections with News International, David Cameron announced a two-part inquiry investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal.
The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press opened with preliminary hearings on 4th October. According to its own website, it will “make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.” Well, we’ll see about that.
Given that the conduct of the press and the actions of tabloid reporters at News International in particular are already the subject of a parliamentary inquiry as well as a police criminal investigation; one can’t help feeling that the Leveson Inquiry is at best a whitewash, at worst a cynical attempt to muddy the waters.
While the inquiry has already been underway for some time now, the real juice didn’t start until last week when submissions began to be heard from members of the public and ‘celebrities’ who had been victims of press intrusion. Our shameful appetite for schadenfreude and the reliving of salacious details was given full vent by the witness list.
Starting with the appalling case of the Dowler family, we were shown just what our penchant for gossip had lead reporters to do in the name of news-gathering. Or at least that is how the tabloids would spin it. The guttersnipes who run these newspapers would happily tell us that our taste for scandal and gossip is at the heart of the problem. And there is some truth in that, the proliferation of scandal rags on our newsstands does bear testimony to this world view.
But then, if we extrapolate that logic through a little exercise in reductio ad absurdum, the sale of arms to third-world dictators is actually the fault of the dictators (and perhaps even the people who didn’t have the courage to rebel against them); the arms manufacturers and dealers are only satisfying a clear market need...
One can’t help feeling that the Leveson Inquiry is at best a whitewash, at worst a cynical attempt to muddy the waters.
The Dowler Affair has in some respects become the benchmark of just how low the British Press has sunk in its efforts to boost sales. When it becomes acceptable to trade on the misery of grieving families and effectively to interfere in murder investigations, we are on shaky ground when advocating press freedom and self-regulation.
The Inquiry has also inadvertently given fresh perspectives on the world of celebrity and our craven thrall to people who, in the grand scheme of things, are of utterly no consequence. What, for example, gives Elle McPherson the power to effectively have one of her employees sectioned as an alcoholic? Sure, ‘the Body’ looks good in a pair of knickers and she’s proved to be a good brood mare for a multi-billionaire hedge-fund manager but does that really justify her exercising such power over an employee that they feel they are being incarcerated?
The submissions this week of lawyer Graham Shear also offer some grim insights into the workings of the tabloid press; particularly when there’s a chance to do a good-old-fashioned exposé of spit-roasting footballers. That old adage about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story now seems to take the form of a cost-benefit analysis: will the price of getting it wrong be less than the legal costs of a defamation suit?
Former Editor of the News of the World Phil Hall appeared on BBC Breakfast at the weekend and assured the two unquestioning and empty-headed presenters that such practices as phone hacking were not available during his tenure as editor. (Hall was NOTW editor from 1995 to 2000 when such technology apparently didn’t exist; do you believe him?)
However Hall did make a telling admission. He offered the classic tabloid hack justification – the old ‘nonce’ defence. According to Hall, if during his editorship, he’d had access to such technology and he’d been informed of the conduct of a paedophile, then he’d have used hacking techniques to get the story. The implication being that if you disagree with the right of a newspaper to breach privacy in this instance, you are somehow no better than a kiddy-fiddler yourself.
In other words, Hall admitted that hypothetically, he was prepared to break the law in order to get a story to sell newspapers, just as long as he could be pass it off as public interest. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but the law is the law and breaking it is still a matter for the police and the judiciary however corrupt and ineffectual they might be.
It wasn’t the police or the politicians blew the whistle on this scandal in the first place; it was actually another newspaper.
There are compelling arguments for closer regulation of the UK press, no doubt about it. Certainly, the Press Complaints Commission has shown itself to be either shockingly ill-equipped or worse, wholly reluctant to bring errant newspapers to heel. The list of dissatisfied complainants to the PCC is long and I would even include myself in that group, having made a complaint against the Daily Telegraph in 2010 for what was effectively an incitement to hatred.
Of course, there are some hacks out there who’d have us believe that the press is blameless. According to the Sunday Telegraph’s London Editor Andrew Gilligan: "In newspaper terms it [The Leveson Inquiry] has written the headlines before it has done the reporting. What happened at the News of the World was clearly not a failure of regulation … it was a failure of the police to enforce the law.” (That would be the same Andrew Gilligan who couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth in a job application: According to Labour MP Keith Vaz; “I gave Andrew Gilligan a job as an intern [20 years ago]. He was dismissed because he had forged references for his CV.”)
But on the other hand, Private Eye Editor Ian Hislop made a point that seems to have been forgotten in all this self-righteous fulmination. It wasn’t the police, the politicians or even the other branches of the media that blew the whistle on this scandal in the first place; it was actually another newspaper that initially exposed the seamy and shocking practices. The police and the political class were happy to collude in all of this until the balloon went up.
If indeed it turns out that the press loses some of its hard-won freedom, it won’t just be the fault of the politicians, the celebrities or the judiciary. The fourth estate will have no-one but itself to blame for its failure to self-regulate. Do we really want to live in a world where super-injunctions become the norm; where justice and freedom of expression are the preserve of the moneyed few?
If the greed, arrogance and hubris of tabloid journalists lead to a curbing of its freedoms and democracy suffers as a consequence of a hamstrung press, we should be realistic about where to point the finger.
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