by Katy Clark MP and Julia Hartley-Brewer / 29 Aug 2012
Yes, says Katy Clark
We should be ashamed of some of the ways we have allowed the press in this country to be run. Of course we have courageous journalists who risk their lives to bring us stories, and the investigative journalism of those who plugged away at the phone-hacking story led to the Leveson inquiry. But that inquiry has put a real focus on the ethics, practices, culture and toxic atmosphere in some of our newsrooms.
It now seems to be commonly accepted – with the possible exception of those who own the media – that in the past the relationship between senior politicians and the press has been too close, and politicians have been scared to stand up to media owners.
However, in its evidence to the Leveson inquiry, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) speaks of a “climate of fear” that inhibits “journalists from defending the principles of ethical journalism in the workplace”. In some workplaces, they are put under pressure “to write stories which are inaccurate or misleading”. The NUJ tells of newspaper groups which have played fast and loose with the industry, sacrificing quality journalism, of investigative journalism becoming an endangered species, of press releases being churned out as news, and of “the abandoning of fundamental principles”. Experienced journalists have spoken about the bullying culture in some Fleet Street publications. Concerns are being raised that if journalists give evidence to Leveson, they will be victimised.
For a long time, low pay has been endemic in our newspaper industry, with many journalists working on scant wages. And now for many the only way to get a job in journalism is first to work unpaid for a lengthy period.
Our regional press, in particular, is in crisis. Many titles are closing, and the quality of local coverage is suffering, as generic material is used rather than genuine coverage of council meetings, court cases and local politics. This failure to provide information and a forum for debate is a threat to our local democracy.
As with the banks, executive pay in the newspaper industry does not seem to be linked to performance. Despite a 40 per cent drop in pre-tax profits and a 90 per cent drop in share prices, it is reported that the CEO of Trinity Mirror will receive a pay-off amounting to almost £1m, after having received around £12.5m since she took over in 2003.
Newspaper owners have been at the forefront of trying to de-unionise Britain and in trying to mould trade union legislation in their favour. One of the landmark cases on UK trade union representation is Wilson and others v United Kingdom. David Wilson, a Daily Mail journalist sacked by Associated Newspapers (AN), took this action with other journalists, as AN tried to rid its publications of trade union representation in the 1980s. News International has no trade union recognition. Neither does the Press Association. There isn’t even trade union recognition at the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, although Trinity Mirror recognises unions in other parts of its organisation. This has impacted not only pay and conditions, but also, I believe, the deterioration in ethics. Industry owners have had no-one who is willing or able to stand up to them. The print industry is controlled by a few very wealthy individuals, and finally we have the beginnings of a real debate about whether this concentration of power in a few hands is weakening our democracy.
Leveson is now looking at the issue of press regulation. The Press Complaints Commission does not have any power over what papers print, and can only demand any apology required after a publication has gone to press. We need a strong regulator, independent of those who own the sector, which has real power to set standards and impose sanctions.
We cannot have a healthy democracy until we have an independent, well-resourced press that holds the executive to account. The way the press has been run in this country in the past has not served us well enough, and we need to use this opportunity to demand a media that is controlled by a wider range of individuals, and which is properly and independently regulated.
Katy Clark is Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran
No, says Julia Hartley-Brewer
When Dr Harold Shipman was found guilty 12 years ago of murdering 15 of his patients in cold blood – among hundreds more – there was understandable concern about just how many other GPs might also quietly be killing off the people supposedly in their care.
Politicians from all parties, buoyed by widespread public anger, competed with each other to condemn doctors all over the land, and call for sweeping changes to their regulation. Suddenly, doctors were no longer the angels of mercy, but the Grim Reaper personified.
However, what actually happened was that, quite sensibly, the public and our politicians decided not to write off an entire profession based on the actions of one man. Yet that is what has happened to the British press, in the wake of the News International phone-hacking scandal.
Day after day, we are told what charlatans journalists are, and how we would all happily sell our own grandmothers for a splash. We are, all of us, well and truly in the gutter, shamed and ashamed in equal measure.
But what have we got to be ashamed of? Firstly, we weren’t “all at it”. Indeed, hardly any of us were. Only a tiny minority of journalists and newspaper executives, even on the News of the World, have ever been accused of any wrongdoing.
Often in the past, the behaviour of a few has been used to tar and feather the industry to which they belong, but a reasoned view requires the behaviour of the entire profession to be considered.
Nevertheless, we now have the Leveson inquiry, which is looking at ways to better-regulate the press.
What everyone seems conveniently to forget in the rush to criticise what went on at the NOTW (and, okay, elsewhere too) is that the actions which have been questioned at the Leveson inquiry, if established, are not just unethical or in breach of PCC guidelines, but would be illegal, plain and simple. Unauthorised phone-hacking or interception of emails, paying police officers and government officials are all illegal.
Whatever the Leveson inquiry concludes, there is no more reason to be ashamed of the British press as a result of the phone-hacking scandal than to be ashamed of the NHS because of what ‘Dr Death’ did.
Secondly, and more importantly, the real shame in the phone-hacking affair does not lie with the deplorable actions of certain newspapers, but with the people who allowed or condoned the cover-up of that behaviour. Namely, the police and the politicians.
Which is more sinister? Journalists paying private detectives to hack into people’s phone messages, or the police deciding not to investigate to the full extent the alleged illegal activity? Or powerful politicians who condoned this cover-up by ignoring the public clamour about the scandal and giving the appearance of protecting their chums at News International?
It wasn’t a politician or a police officer who exposed the extent of this wrongdoing. It was other journalists. Indeed, the Tories and the Met were too busy hiring ex-NOTW deputy editors.
Unlike humble hacks, police officers attest and MPs swear an oath, that they as public servants will do their duty to uphold key values in our democracy.
Funnily enough, sometimes it is only through the efforts of the British press that those values are eventually upheld, when newspapers have campaigned to see justice done over the likes of Stephen Lawrence and many other causes célèbres, not to mention the exposé of MPs’ expenses corruption, which led to half a dozen MPs and peers being sent to jail for their crimes. By the way, the parliamentary powers-that-be were not just perfectly content to overlook these crimes, but actively campaigned to prevent them being exposed.
So, while the phone-hacking scandal may have started with the British press, it certainly will not end there. Billionaire businessmen like Rupert Murdoch can seek to drive British government policy all they want, but they can only succeed if our politicians, those so-called honourable gentlemen and ladies, fail to show a bit of backbone and choose not to allow their own greed, desire for power or egos to trump the public interest.
The hacking scandal is less about dodgy journalism and more about political corruption, police ineptitude, and the fear and greed of those seeking power. That is where the true wrongdoing and the real shame lies.
Julia Hartley-Brewer is an LBC 97.3 radio presenter and former political editor of the Sunday Express