As Corporal Jones might have said, they don’t like it up ’em. The ruthless methods of mass circulation papers are being exposed at the Leveson inquiry as never before, so they are lashing out like cornered animals.
Their attacks on the Guardian this week in relation to last July’s Milly Dowler story (see the Mail’s headline: “The false allegation that ‘led to 200 people losing their jobs'”) reveal a self-delusion and a mood of furious denial that will only land them in worse trouble. The editors meet today (Thursday) to review their position; for their sakes and the sakes of their employees you have to hope they can talk sense into each other.
It was not the Guardian that got them into the mess they are now in. Nor was it the Milly Dowler story of last July. It was years of irresponsible, reckless, cruel behaviour that was perpetrated by a minority in their midst and was far too widely tolerated and excused in the industry. It was not voicemail hacking alone, but years of journalists not caring a damn for people they wrote about and not respecting the people they wrote for.
Suggesting that one article made all the difference is like saying that Gavrilo Princip, the Sarajevo assassin, was solely responsible for the First World War, or that a Wimbledon final is decided purely on the last point played. A mountain of straws broke this camel’s back, not just one.
The implication of what they have been saying this week is this: they want to turn back the clock. They would like Rebekah Brooks back in charge at News International with her shabby cronies Colin Myler and Tom Crone by her side. They miss the days when Andy Coulson was in Downing Street, when Rupert Murdoch was pulling strings and when John Yates was a big wheel at Scotland Yard. They might just accept that a police investigation into phone hacking was necessary, providing it picked off only reporters and not executives like them.
Above all, they desperately want us to believe the discredited ‘one rogue newspaper’ scenario, the pretence that no paper but the News of the World had anything to answer for. In the teeth of all the evidence, they would like is to think that phone hacking existed in isolation and had no connection with the brutal, dishonest culture that monstered Christopher Jefferies, the McCanns, Robert Murat, Colin Stagg, Barry George and so many others. And of course they would like to turn back the clock to the days before July, when they still brazenly passed off the Press Complaints Commission as a paragon of rigour and rectitude.
This is delusional, but it is consistent with what has gone before. Remember, these newspapers collectively refused to report the unravelling hacking scandal for two years: so far as they possibly could, they hid it from their readers in a shameful abuse of power.
One of the purposes of the inquiry is to get at the truth. That takes time and for people who prefer the truth to be something you can throw together overnight this idea is clearly bewildering. Lord Justice Leveson hears witnesses and gathers evidence. He is hearing not only from victims of press abuse but from journalists; indeed he will hear from a parade of newspaper editors. At the end of this process Leveson will report, not only on the popular press, but, as he has made abundantly clear, also on the conduct of the Guardian. Good.
The editors, however, can’t stand this because it means that for the duration they do not have exclusive control of the megaphone in the way that they are used to. It means that the public has been able to hear the voices and stories of press victims for the first time, and the public has seen that what appears in print sometimes comes at a horrible, unacceptable price. It means that the editors are exposed to scrutiny. This clearly makes them angry.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart