/ 21 January 2012

British media probe lifts lid on a cesspool of violation

The Leveson inquiry into press standards, under way in London, is exposing large parts of the British media as simply and unambiguously corrupt. The probe was announced in mid-July last year as a reaction to the phone-hacking scandal.

Hearings began in November, and will continue for most of this year, in pursuit of a mandate that involves investigating the press’s relationship with the public, the police and politicians and will also consider the shape of self-regulation.

In its first weeks of evidence, the inquiry in the Royal Courts of Justice has heard some extraordinary things. Celebrities and ordinary people have spoken about being hounded. According to reports in the Guardian and on the BBC, singer Charlotte Church said The Sun published a clock before her 16th birthday, counting down the days until she reached the age of sexual consent. Gerry and Kate McCann spoke about their anguish at persistent reports that they murdered their missing toddler Madeleine during a holiday in Portugal. Journalists have testified that phone hacking was routine in various tabloid newsrooms.

Former Daily Mirror financial reporter James Hipwell said it was a “bog-standard journalistic tool”. Editors, like the paper’s former editor, Piers Morgan, however, have generally claimed not to have been aware of the practice.

A rare defence of tabloid journalism came from the former features editor of the News of the World, Paul McMullan, who argued: “Privacy is for paedos, fundamentally. No one else needs it. Privacy is evil.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary performance came last week from Richard Desmond, the owner of the Daily Star and Daily Express.

He sought to justify his papers’ reporting in the McCann case by saying that even if 38 libel cases had been settled with major front-page apologies and the payment of significant damages, that still left many good reports. “If there were 102 articles on the McCanns and 38 bad ones — you could argue there were 65 or 70 good ones.”

Asked about his attitude to ethics, he told the inquiry he did not really know what the word meant. He also blamed the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission — from which he has withdrawn — for not having stopped him from publishing the reports and said it should be replaced by a “proper RCD board” — a play on his own initials.

And this is only the start.

It is already clear that the implications for the British media are profound. The system of self-regulation embodied in the press commission, generally seen as ineffectual and discredited is certain to face an extensive shake-up.

But the challenge goes further. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, told the probe it was being conducted at “a time of existential threat to the idea and sustainability of journalism itself”. The press already faces huge challenges to its business model through the explosion of online media: add the crisis of credibility brought about by the phone-tapping scandal and you have a sense of the depth of the problem.

Half of the readers left stranded by the closure of the News of the World did not switch to the disgraced title’s rivals, they have simply stopped reading a Sunday newspaper, according to official circulation figures. Although one should not read too much into the statistic, it is hard to avoid the impression that this is at least to some extent a result of profound disillusionment.

Also since the start of the year, Scotland Yard, itself under pressure because of its failure to deal properly with the phone-tapping issue, has released a report saying, essentially, that the close relationship between police officers and journalists is far too open to manipulation. The author, Elizabeth Filkin, calls for less easy exchange of expensive hospitality and vigorous action against officers leaking information.

In a graphic illustration of how little journalists are trusted, she calls for a precise set of rules governing communication between the two sides and for all contact to be recorded and open to audit.

On one level, the media compete viciously, at another; they have become a far too cosy part of the British establishment, with editors regularly hobnobbing with ministers. Journalists are, in a word, embedded, with new recruits forced to give up their idealism and fall in line by a culture of bullying, according to one submission to Leveson. Journalism’s credibility has suffered as its independence has declined.

The only bright part of this gloomy picture is the work of the Guardian and its reporter, Nick Davies, who uncovered the scandal. His book, Flat Earth News, on the way news has been industrialised, should be required reading. His work shows journalism at its best.

In South Africa, we would do well to pay more attention to the Leveson inquiry. For one thing, it is riveting stuff: you could not invent some of the things that are emerging.

At the same time, they hold grave implications for journalism in the rest of the world, including South Africa. Our credibility is also at great risk and institutional arrangements made in the United Kingdom will be very influential elsewhere. South African media should take the opportunity to show that we can do much better.

the details of the evidence to the Leveson inquiry cited above come from reports by the Guardian and the BBC.

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