Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart’s new book is now available to download. The Penguin Special details the chronology of press abuse and attempted reform in the UK, right up to the events that led to the Leveson inquiry, and includes an introduction from Hacked Off Director and victim of multiple press abuses, Hugh Grant. Read the following extract from Chapter 1 now.
It was on the afternoon of Monday 4 July that the Guardian revealed online that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. There was instant and widespread horror and the story was soon dominating the television and radio bulletins. That evening, however, the editors of most of the national daily newspapers made a striking choice. Usually they will embrace any story that is firing up the emotions of their readers, but not this time. The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star and the Daily Express all judged that this outrage against a dead child and her bereaved family did not even merit a paragraph on the front page. The Daily Mail and The Times, meanwhile, pushed the story down to second or third billing, the Mail placing its report in the shadow of a much bigger headline about tax and the elderly. Dowler may have been the lead story for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and, naturally, the Guardian, but significantly those three account for less than one eighth of daily newspaper readership.
It was only the latest though perhaps the most shameless act in a sustained effort to suppress the story of hacking, to hide it from the readers; and as recently as ten years ago it might have succeeded. This time it didn’t. Thanks to broadcast news and the internet, newspaper editors were unable to divert or to smother the fury that would lead within a couple of weeks to the closure of the News of the World, the abandonment of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for outright ownership of BSkyB and the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry. It was a sign that while newspapers may still influence the daily news agenda they can no longer steer it as they once did. And this change also affected the way we all experienced the Leveson Inquiry once it started work. Where all previous inquiries into the press over the past sixty years were reported, explained and interpreted principally by the very press that was being scrutinized, Leveson ensured that his inquiry took place live online before a large audience, and it was also reported much more extensively in broadcast news than its predecessors. The editors could warp and twist the proceedings in their own pages – and they did their worst – but they could not conceal the fact that they were on trial.
And not only did Leveson go out to the world but the world also came to Leveson, in an unprecedented manner. Legions of people with stories of press abuse signed up as ‘core participant victims’, or sent in submissions, or lent their experiences to omnibus collections of stories. MPs and celebrities, academics and victims of crime, lawyers and ordinary people caught in the media crossfire: they all testified. And a great variety of organizations gave evidence too. Where in 1947– 9 or in 1962 or in 1990 the inquiries had been largely dialogues between politicians and senior journalists or their employers, with a few others on the fringe, in 2011–12 at the Leveson Inquiry civil society moved in. The British Psychological Society had something to contribute, as did the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, as did the Hillsborough Family Support Group, the National AIDS Trust and the College of Social Work, and many others too. This was no longer just the establishment talking to the establishment; the public was involved.
Another story. The Times regularly carries opinion polls, which are conducted for it by the Populus organization. In June 2012 the paper asked Populus to seek the views of the public about the Leveson Inquiry, and so respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the proposition that ‘the Leveson Inquiry will lead to more effective regulation of the press, offering better protection to members of the public against unwarranted intrusion into their private lives’. Fifty-nine per cent said they agreed, while 27 per cent disagreed. How did The Times report this finding? It didn’t. Its report went like this:
. . . a new Populus poll for The Times suggests that the public believe the hearings have lost their way. The poll found 61 per cent agreeing that the ‘Leveson inquiry has lost its way as a procession of politicians, journalists and celebrities have simply tried to defend themselves against one another’s allegations’. The same proportion felt that it has ‘received too much coverage in the media’ given the other news around. Less than half, 44 per cent, thought the inquiry ‘will result in a healthier, more arms-length relationship between politicians and the media’.
So while the poll showed that a comfortable majority trusted Leveson to do a good job, the newspaper somehow did not find room for this fact. Instead it reported responses to two rather loaded questions, which appeared to show Leveson in a negative light. And it said that ‘only’ 44 per cent felt the inquiry would improve relations between politicians and the press without mentioning that even fewer, 36 per cent, took the opposite view. (In other words, more people trusted Leveson on this than not.) You could hardly find a more vivid example of corporate denial. But more important than the Times’s denial was the public’s faith. Despite months of negative reporting and distortion in most of the national press, people backed the Leveson process. The drip-drip of complaints by newspaper columnists that Leveson was boring, out of touch, dictatorial, running beyond his remit, killing press freedom, in thrall to celebrities and unfair to editors failed to produce the desired effect. And this was not a freak finding: other polls and studies around that time, notably one by the Institute for Public Policy Research, confirmed that the public strongly favoured change.
But the weeks and months have been slipping by and time is on the side of the editors and proprietors. Their drip-drip of propaganda, meanwhile, has become a steady flow. They intend to drown the argument.
They have another problem, though, which is that their case is extraordinarily weak. They have a handful of standard arguments that are more or less the ones they and their predecessors have been deploying for decades, but this time, one way or another, the readers, the victims and the critics are able to answer back, exposing the feebleness of the arguments as never before, and showing how isolated are the remaining believers. Few outside the press industry, indeed few outside the upper reaches of that industry, have endorsed the editors’ stance. There is a widespread refusal, in particular, to accept their assertion that effective regulation of the press inevitably means the end for freedom of expression – an assertion that has been especially hard to swallow because it comes from a group of people who have so conspicuously betrayed freedom of expression. In an industry which boasts that free expression is guaranteed by the diversity of views it delivers, there was a conspiracy, albeit probably an unspoken one, to deny readers news not only about the wrongdoings of journalists, but also about a cynical cover-up by the country’s biggest media corporation. Month after month the story was buried or ignored, and worse, those who did report it – notably the Guardian – were attacked, mocked and belittled for doing so. The people who operated this code of omerta make poor champions of free expression.
Worse still, their past evasions and deceptions have caught up with them. The analogy of the Last Chance Saloon may be a weary one, but it still expresses with some potency exactly where they are, and the more so precisely because it is so weary. It was in 1989 that the Tory minister David Mellor told the press it was ‘drinking in the Last Chance Saloon’. Last chances are supposed to be finite but Mellor’s warning resulted in no real change, so the editors and proprietors have been able to enjoy the hospitality of the saloon for a couple of decades. The time has come to move on.
So is it all over? Are our national newspapers finally going to be made accountable, or are we going to see the same old tricks produce the same result – another decade or two of the Last Chance Saloon, with unaccountable papers bullying and intruding upon innocent people? It is finely balanced. There is a lot of public anger and determination – you might say that everybody’s hacked off. But don’t forget the power of time; don’t underestimate the volume and persistence of the press megaphone; and don’t forget that fatal weakness of politicians. (If, for example, action on media reform were to be delayed until 2014, the next election would then be just a year away.) So if we want to be sure of change we must all be ready to make a stand, to insist that this time we see the press made accountable to the public it is supposed to serve. We must demand that government and opposition stand up to the proprietors and editors and their allies. We must oppose further delays, reviews and consultations. We must say: no fixes or fudges, and no more last chances!
We can resist the effects of time by keeping fresh in our minds the reasons why the inquiry was necessary and what it showed us. And we should see the tactics and the arguments of the editors and proprietors for what they are. This short book aims to help.