/ 6 October 2011

Don’t blame ‘commercial imperatives’ for phone hacking, say editors

Britain’s phone-hacking scandal cannot be blamed on competitive and commercial pressures, newspaper editors said on Thursday at an inquiry set up following a furore over mobile phone interception by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid.

“Those who suggest and imply that phone hacking has arisen because of the pressures to deliver big stories are in my view wrong,” said Phil Hall, the now-defunct paper’s editor between 1995 and 2000.

“It has happened because a group of people indulged in illegal activity and the checks and balances that should be in place in any newsroom or any business for that matter have failed.”

He was speaking at a rare gathering of the editors of most of Britain’s national newspapers, who the inquiry had invited to a seminar to discuss the pressures faced by journalists in the highly competitive newspaper industry.

The fact that so many editors gave up their time to attend indicates how seriously they take the prospect of the inquiry recommending a tougher form of media oversights to replace the system of self-regulation.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the inquiry under senior judge Brian Leveson after the phone-hacking scandal that shocked the country and led to the closure of the News of the World, Britain’s biggest Sunday newspaper.

The disclosure that journalists had intercepted the phone messages of murder victims as well as celebrities caused widespread revulsion, forcing Murdoch’s News Corp to also drop a multibillion-dollar plan to take full control of British pay TV operator BSkyB .

The editors were told they faced an uncertain future in a climate of falling sales of their print editions and the loss of advertising to the internet.

But they insisted that tighter budgets and journalists working longer hours did not mean ethical standards would fall.

“I don’t think anyone here would ever make an excuse that commercial pressures are changing the way that we operate in terms of our integrity, in terms of our focus on accuracy or getting things right,” said Sunday Telegraph editor Ian MacGregor.

“People want to believe that what we produce is accurate and true and we will find any way possible to ensure that we maintain that,” he added.

But Richard Peppiatt, a former freelance reporter for the Daily Star, owned by media magnate Richard Desmond, said some tabloid newspapers regularly distorted the truth.

“Tabloid newsrooms are often bullying and aggressive environments in which dissent is simply not tolerated,” he said.

“News editors keen to appease their superiors with eye-catching news lists, dump the onus on reporters to stand up sometimes fantastical hunches and ill-informed assertions,” he added.

Rebekah Brooks, who took over from Hall as News of the World editor in 2000, and her successor Andy Coulson, were both arrested in July on suspicion of corruption and trying to intercept communications. Both have been freed on police bail.

Leveson’s inquiry will first focus on the relationship between the press and the public, as well as the relationship between media organisations, the police and politicians.

Later it will look at the extent of wrongdoing by the News of the World and other newspapers, and failures in an original police investigation into phone-hacking.

Cameron has said he hoped the first part of the inquiry would report within 12 months. — Reuters