Sir Harry Evans deserves credit for organising this week’s debate about ‘the press we deserve’ in central London. It was deeply depressing, however, to see a panel of the great and the good discussing the press they thought they deserved, with hardly a reference to the reading public and with no apparent awareness of the depth of failings in the (absent) tabloid press.
In a cloud of complacency, the systemic failings of the tabloids and of the Press Complaints Commission were lost altogether. Here, by way of reminder, are some of the problems that most of those present seemed happy to do nothing about.
- The shameful spectacle of mass, serial libel, followed by mass serial apologies and payout, followed by further mass, serial libel, The press did this to Robert Murat, to the McCanns, to Chris Jefferies in Bristol and in all likelihood we will see the same outcome in the case of the nurse Rebecca Leighton. Papers tell grotesque and damaging lies about people, pay up and then do it again (we even have a new courtroom ritual in which they all apologise together). Imagine these were railway accidents: would we allow train operators to pay modest fines after killing a few passengers, and then carry on as before? No, we would demand that they account for what had gone wrong, if necessary discipline those responsible, and improve their internal systems so it did not happen again. Nobody at all does that in the case of the tabloid press. They just go on defaming.
- The Mosley trial revealed the depths of dishonesty to which journalists can sink. The News of the World bullied, bribed, blackmailed, cheated and lied to get its story and its follow-ups, and then embellished what it had to the point where they bore no relation to the facts. The judge all but called the paper’s chief reporter a liar and a blackmailer in court, and yet that reporter was not sacked. After the paper was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine that it could laugh off, where was the regulator who would go in and ask what had gone wrong and what was being done to fix it? Nowhere.
- The sustained fantasy and dishonesty of the tabloid coverage of the Madeleine McCann affair. This went on for the best part of a year, with the PCC doing nothing at all, besides standing by and watching. It affected many more people than the McCanns; the public as a whole were lied to, to the point where a kind of hysteria was engendered. Many papers eventually paid damages, but does anyone doubt that something similar could happen again now?
- Phone hacking was illegal, and is a matter for the law. But the newsroom standards and ethics behind it are something different, and it would be a naive person who claimed that those exceptionally low standards prevailed only at the News of the World, or indeed that phone hacking only occurred at that paper. Baroness Buscombe’s claim that the PCC code of practice has driven up standards is utter nonsense. Moreover, the four-year cover-up by the News International management, which continued to employ and shelter hackers for years, demonstrates that these standards were not questioned by those in charge.
- The sustained refusal of the tabloids to report the unfolding hacking scandal from 2009 until this summer was an abuse of editorial power and amounts to a cover-up in itself. Here was a scandal involving a huge international corporation, the prime minister, half a dozen former Cabinet ministers, two royal princes and more celebrities than you could shake a stick at, but tabloid editors systematically hid it from their readers because it was a scandal that embarrassed them too. In effect, they lied to their readers by implying the scandal was not happening. Not since the press concealed the brewing abdication crisis in 1936 have we seen such a collective violation of responsibility.
Those are only the most gross and most recent offences, for which self-regulation had no remedy, nor even a response. It had no remedy because the PCC is a small-time complaints body and nothing more, and it was designed that way by editors and proprietors who did not have the slightest interest in raising or supporting ethical standards. Instead they wanted a fig-leaf behind which they could continue to behave exactly as they wished.
We are now witnessing another cover-up, just like News International’s. We are being told, by half of Harry Evans’s panellists and by the Daily Mail that there was indeed a problem in the tabloid press, but it was all down to one rogue newspaper. That rogue newspaper has been caught (admittedly a little late in the day, but that was the fault of the police) and dealt with. A message has been sent out to other newspapers which they will heed. Problem solved; let’s get back to normal.
That is a self-serving lie, just as it was when it was peddled by News International about Clive Goodman. There isn’t just one rogue newspaper, there are lots of them. The problem has not been dealt with at all. And if we go back to normal we are giving the libellers and blackmailers, the privacy invaders and the people-destroyers a licence to carry on as before. Who deserves that kind of press?
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University and former media columnist at the New Statesman. He was a journalist at Reuters and the Independent. His books include The Case of Stephen Lawrence (Penguin).