Leveson inquiry starts today – what kind of free Press do we want?

14 11 2011

By John Jenkins,  lecturer Brighton Journalist Works

What kind of a free Press do we want? A totally free Press left with its own self-governing body for standards of behaviour?

Or a Press without any restrictions other than the existing laws of libel?

Or a Press subject to government and legal censorship?

Think carefully before you give an opinion for this is not a black and white matter. There are huge benefits in having a totally free Press but there are also drawbacks.

There are also disastrous drawbacks in having a Press subjected to Government control and censorship.

With a censored Press you can end up like Stalinist Russia which had two government controlled newspapers: Izvestia and Pravda. These words meant truth and news. Hence the Muscovites used to joke: there is no news in the truth and there is no truth in the news.

Press lords like prostitutes
Stanley Baldwin, regarded by some as safe pair of hands as a Prime Minister and by others as a pusillanimous ditherer said that Press lords were like prostitutes – they wanted power without responsibility. He was referring in particular to those two newspaper titans of the day, Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail group and Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express. Both achieved more for Britain than Baldwin ever did.
Another wit used to proclaim:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God, the British journalist,
But seeing what the man will do unbribed,
There’s no occasion to.

This debate has come about of course during the furore over phone tapping which led to the closure of the News of the World and huge payments made by Rupert Murdoch’s company, News International to alleged victims of the phone tapping.

Leveson inquiry
Now we have the Leveson inquiry which in due course will report to the Government. The good Lord Leveson has been listening to evidence from all quarters as he delves into the word of news.

I am left with the unmistakeable impression that this has nothing to do with whether or not we should have a free Press but a form of revenge from MPs who by and large were shown to be dishonest in the presentation of their expenses to Parliament..

In case you have forgotten the statistics let me remind you. Out of 646 Members of parliament only 50 minimised their expenses – and even one of those, the saintly Vince Cable, has just been fined for not completing his tax return correctly.

This was not petty cash we were talking about. Some of them invented fictitious mortgages which they expected you and me to pay for, another claimed for clearing his moat while another built a house on his pond for the ducks.

Yet another had to pay back £80,000 – others – but too few – were sent to jail.
Big stick
Since that day members of all parties have been looking for a big stick to beat the Press with.

The phone tapping gave them a great excuse because stupidly the News of the World used phone tapping to check on victims of crime.
They could have got this information – if necessary – from orthodox reporting methods.

And do not think that the News of the World was the only newspaper to employ these tactics.

Equally, newspapers have helped many an investigation where the police have been unable to trace criminals or solve crimes.

Smart phones
Modern technology has already made phone tapping out of date. If you own a smart phone you can buy at a reasonable price the kit to monitor anybody’s e mails. Dodgy politicians, errant husbands or wives and other miscreants can be easily monitored.

Not only does the march of IT progress make the phone tapping inquiry redundant, other advances in media platforms for citizen journalists mean the days of newspapers as we know them are numbered.

Soon we will have one tabloid paper – call it the Sun-Mirror: one middle of the road paper – call it the Mail-Express and one heavyweight paper, call it The Times Telegraph.

It is worth quoting some of the evidence given by leading journalists to the Leveson inquiry.

The most trenchant came from Kelvin MacKenzie, a former successful editor of the Sun and now a columnist on the Daily Mail.

Arse kissing or arse kicking
In typical fashion he cast doubts on Leveson to produce anything worthwhile and points out that politicians behaviour to Press lords varies from arse kissing to arse kicking, depending on when they want their support. That, in my experience is a pretty fair summing up.

Of course, super injunctions and the courts are being wrongly used to prevent the truth coming out in the public domain. If some successful sportsman is held up as a shining light to our young people and endorses products from football boots to hair restorer I think it is a matter of public interest to correct the image if he is a lying, cheating, adulterous, tax dodging, drug taking imbecile.

Not that any of our shining young men qualify in all categories.

And if Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Andrew Marr and Jeremy Clarkson want to appear whiter than white they must mend their ways, admit they are human and not hide behind the law. Marr and Clarkson have admitted their errors.

The associate editor of the Sun – and a shrewd political commentator, — Trevor Kavanagh – points out that but for the Free Press in the United States Dominic Strauss Khan’s conduct, widely known among the chattering classes in Paris was deemed under French law to be of no concern to the people who were going to be asked to elect him President.

Kavanagh makes the reasonable point that if people are going to persuade us to part with our cash or give them our votes we should know something about their characters.

Would we have wanted to have John Stonehouse, Jeremy Thorpe or John Profumo in power if we had known what they were really like?

Freedom of information
Alan Rushbridger of the Guardian claimed to Leveson that the laws in Britain actually hindered investigative reporting and pointed out that in a world league table we came in joint 28th place when it came to freedom of information.

Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail put things in perspective. He roundly condemned phone tapping but pointed out:

No British cities were looted, nobody died, and no banks were in danger of collapsing and elected politicians continued to steal from the public. And moreover the nation did not go to war.

And yet the Leveson inquiry has wider powers than any inquiry into these problems.

Rank smell of hypocrisy
He sums up neatly:

Am I alone in detecting the rank smell of hypocrisy and revenge in the political class’s current moral indignation over a British Press that dared to expose their greed and corruption?

Well what do you think?

Talking of greed and corruption did you read about the Pakistani cricketers?

After the jury were out for 17 hours at Southwark Crown court in London they were found guilty of a match-fixing plot in a Test match against England and jailed.

Now, cricket authorities for years have suspected something like this – ever since the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje was implicated. So have the police

There were also some very strange happenings concerning a cricket tournament in the Middle East.

Suddenly the term it’s not cricket seem to foreshadow something much more sinister than a batsman refusing to walk after being given out.

The trouble stemmed from the huge illegal betting on the Asian sub continent.

Investigative journalism
Whether the cricket authorities were naïve in ignoring the implications, or whether they did not want publicity to harm potential television rights we shall never know, but the whole affair would have gone on – again and again – and unpunished, had it not been for some clever investigative reporting by a Sunday newspaper. That newspaper was the News of the World.

As we cannot trust our MPs or international cricketers I think we should be very careful of muzzling the Press.


Why I’m ashamed to admit I’m a journalist – says BJW lecturer

11 07 2011

John Jenkins, legend of Fleet Street reveals his own murky past and reveals which papers may close next.

When the announcement came that this weekend was to see the last edition of the News of the World I was not surprised but very sad.
The scandalous revelations concerning phone hacking into private telephone conversations was too serious to be ignored.

For the first time in something like 50 years connected with the media I feel ashamed to admit that I am a journalist and I have been a reporter and an executive on both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers.

Why Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International did not resign or was not sacked in the early days of these revelations I cannot understand.

Brooks defence – or Rebekah Wade as she was when editor of the News of the World, was that she didn’t know that it was happening. I find that totally unconvincing.

The News of the World was a weekly paper, it came out once every seven days. There is plenty of time for an editor to find out who is providing stories and where they come from. If she truly didn’t know then she must have been the most incompetent national newspaper editor of all time.

I once worked for a Sunday newspaper – the Sunday Express under the editor John Junor when it sold more than 4 million each day. Junor read every line that went into that paper whether it was written by a lowly reporter, a provincial correspondent, an international news agency or a specially commissioned politician.

He read it in raw copy, on page proofs and on the page. Nothing escaped his eyes. Woe betide anybody who got something wrong or stepped beyond the bounds of decent behaviour. Instant dismissal was a fact of life. He was not a popular man among his staff.

But popularity is not a requisite for a good editor. When he gave an instruction it was certainly not a subject for debate. But his judgement of events and people was legendary.

My first editor, on the Dorset County Chronicle in its heyday was Heber Bruce, a Quaker and a man of great integrity…I was once offered money to keep a court case out of the paper. When I told him he took my copy and elevated it from a two paragraph filler to an inside page lead.

The tragedy of the N o W affair is not that they exposed people like randy footballers and actors – or cheating and lying politicians – but that they stepped into the blameless lives of ordinary people, some beset by grief.

At a stroke this has undone much of the good which newspapers do to preserve our democracy and given politicians a big stick to beat the Press and to step even closer to laws of privacy which will hide their own wrongdoings.

To have seen John Prescott and Max Clifford and Hugh Grant on screen, posing as white knights denouncing newspapers and posing as arbiters of good taste stuck in the craw.

And Fords, Virgin and other advertisers have set a dangerous example in withdrawing their advertising. Does this mean we are now to have newspapers subject to censorship by advertisers?

So if Ford motor company produce a car which a motoring correspondent describes as a bag of nails will they use that s a reason not to advertise?

There is also a great attempt to paint Rupert Murdoch as some kind of ogre who leads poor naïve politicians astray and Labour politicians are quick to say he has Cameron in his pocket.

Press Lords have always courted politicians just as politicians have courted them. He was good old Roop to left wingers when the Sun supported Tony Blair and the Labour Party, having been weaned away from Margaret Thatcher.

But when his newspapers switched allegiance he became a devil with horns.

And it’s often forgotten that while Murdoch’s News International publishes the N o W and the Sun, he also publishes the Times and the Sunday Times.

The fact that the two sober papers sell around 1.5million copies with each publication while the other two were the biggest sellers daily and on Sunday says more about Britain than it does about Murdoch.

It also did not come as a surprise to me to learn that policemen had been paid by the News of the World.

In my days as a reporter in London’s East End I knew that some officers were given a drink by national newspapers – in the jargon of the time that translated into – anything from £25 to £1,000 or a holiday with some excellent shooting.

And in the days before mobile phones it was not unknown for one agency in London to monitor police radios in order to be first on a crime scene.

As far as I was concerned the offer came the other way. A Detective Inspector in the East End offered me money for information which might help his team to feel a few collars. We settled amicably for an arrangement which meant that he gave me useful background while I tipped him off about anything I discovered about crime. It was all done over the odd civilised pint or two. Neither of us ever broke a confidence.

Now you have the ridiculous situation of police spokesmen who give out a statement which is usually too late and useless.

Conversely we now have police officers hogging the cameras at the end of a court case giving their views on the crime. This may be good for their egos and promotion but I would prefer such reporting to be concentrated on the judge’s remarks.

Now which will be the next newspaper to close? Unfortunately it could be the Observer, which has never been a happy bedfellow of the Guardian. It was always a better newspaper than its daily partner: it rang with authority whether n politics, defence, the arts or sport and it had the guts to support the abolition of hanging before most politicians jumped on the bandwagon.

Recently it has been starved of resources as the Guardian, which once survived on the back of the Manchester Evening News, has found its losses mounting.

It will not be many years – or maybe months – before we have one tabloid newspaper , probably the Sun-Mirror, and one mid range paper: the Mail/Express and one decent quality journal: the Telegraph/Times.

Unfortunately television and radio will not take the place of the missing titles.