Expert Comment: Leveson Enquiry UpdateWednesday 25 April 2012
Paddy Hoey, Lecturer in Journalism and Communication at Liverpool Hope University
News International, once the bench mark of success in the British newspaper industry is stumbling from one crisis to another. With more staff arrested in investigations into the bribing of police officers, Rupert Murdoch is said to be flying in to personally fire fight a crisis which increasingly sees senior editorial staff critical of the management.
Associate editor Trevor Kavanagh, a former political editor, veteran of the Wapping newsroom and close ally of Murdoch, made the civil war at the paper known in his column this week. He railed against dawn raids at journalists homes saying, they ‘are being treated like members of an organised crime gang,’ before asserting, ‘this witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press freedom.’
Well, leaving aside his misunderstanding of the phrase witch-hunt, his claims for diminishment of press freedoms needs further investigation and perhaps, more importantly, signposts perhaps the most significant shift in the culture of newsgathering in the recent history of the industry in this country.
In the era of declining sales and increased competition for readers, a culture of ‘get the story at all costs’ grew in the British newspaper industry. Indeed this culture became valourised. When I trained to be a journalist one of our favourite books was Stick It Up Your Punter, Chippendale and Horrie’s wonderfully bawdy and funny history of The Sun. In it the culture of intrusion and win at all costs was revealed as the preferred modus operandi of News International. Celebrities and royals were stalked, bins were rifled through and ordinary members of the public ‘monstered’ and destroyed for the sake of a headline.
The culture came from the top down. Murdoch controlled editors by terrorising and rewarding them in equal measure. Staff were bullied by overbearing caricatures like foul mouthed editor Kelvin Mackenzie and knew that they had to produce sensational story after sensational scoop. But it worked, and the fat profits of The Sun helped subsidise the Sky empire.
The public, it seemed, largely cared not a jot about intrusion, despite the conduct of the papers being central to the 1990 Calcutt Inquiry into press regulation from which the Press Complaints Commission was established.
Fast forward to the post phone hacking and the increasingly apparent collusion of police in it, and the public’s attitude seems to have changed. Certainly, the police and News International’s attitudes have changed and both are fighting to detoxify their brands, such as they are, in the eyes of the public. The lengths to which reporters will go to get a story is also being questioned as it the use of expert sources and the rewarding of them. Perhaps it is too little too late for those who have lost their jobs for no other crime than being unwitting parties to the bullying newsroom culture passed from the owner to his editors.
Of course, Kavanagh’s allusion to Soviet censorship is hyperbolic, but we do need to be very careful about this very public ‘bonfire of the journalists’ as it was brilliantly described by Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson this week. The vast majority of journalists do not intrude on the personal freedoms and privacy of celebrities or ‘civilians’. They do not pay off corrupt officials nor do they hack phones or rifle through discarded bank statements left in bin bags.
And, as the key institutions of civil society are protected by growing shields of public relations officers all seeking to find the good days on which to bury bad news, we perhaps have never needed journalists more. In recent years the Liverpool Daily Post and ECHO have broken stories of civic corruption and incompetence thanks largely to the diligence of reporters with good contacts books and vast experience. We don’t want to lose that.
In many ways British newspaper journalism is facing a midlife crisis. It knows it can’t behave like it once did but still wants to taste those past glories while younger rivals are making it feel old fashioned and over the hill. Let’s hope that its way out of this crisis is not reverting to type and behaving like it used to but by plotting a new course in the era of the Internet.