Hacking book: Dacre's 'problematic' answer to a key Leveson question
Today's extract from the updated edition of The phone-hacking scandal: journalism on trial* is by a media academic, Barry Turner, who examines the way in which some of the main questions originally set by the have been answered, or not.
I have selected just three of the questions highlighted by Turner and begin with one that concerns the effects of competition and asks whether it impacts on the way in which journalists operate...
, editor-in-chief of the Mail titles, emphasised in his witness statements to Leveson that the readers of his paper had an editorial role. He said:
"I am held to account by my readers every day. The act of paying 55p for a newspaper is a voluntary one. If I do not connect with my readers' values and reflect their interests and aspirations, or if I offend them or am unfair or prurient, they will stop buying our newspapers.
If that happens in great numbers I will lose my job. only survive by connecting with their readership, by representing their interests, reflecting their aspirations and guarding them against injustice."
This is a problematic answer to a question about morality and ethics. Dacre is talking about the newspaper as a product and his use of the word accountable is irrelevant to the question of press ethics.
The editors of the could easily have deployed such an argument. They could argue, and in fact did frequently, that their readers had a right to the type of story produced by that paper. The question of whether a newspaper survives is naturally second to whether it is ethical.
Dacre was vigorous in his rebuttal that he, as editor of the Daily Mail, imposed his will on journalists. In oral testimony, he dismissed the idea that he imposed his will on the newspapers' writers, suggesting that it would be incredulous that he could tell people like Alex Brummer, Simon Heffer, Max Hastings, or Craig Brown what to write. He went on to say:
"All our writers – and I'm leaving out some brilliant ones – have their strongly held views, many of them different. It's a rich, diverse spectrum of opinion that permeates the paper."
This rich, diverse spectrum permeating the paper, according to Dacre's witness statement, represents the interests of and reflects the aspirations of its readership, a readership with a well established right wing perspective making this "diverse spectrum" largely a spectrum of right wing political and economic views.
It is quite correct that writers such as these would be unlikely to submit to editorial control and could, as suggested in his evidence, simply leave to work elsewhere. That is hardly representative, however.
This group of individuals who write as columnists enjoy much more autonomy than the regular newsroom journalists who perhaps have rather less opportunity for walking out and into a new job.
Why don't we leave it to the law of the land?
Turner then deals with the matter of constraints on the press. Several publishers and editors argued that the press should not be subject to any additional constraints in relation to behaviour and standards other than those imposed by existing laws...
Commentators too numerous to count have pointed out that phone hacking is illegal and many question why there is need for an inquiry in the light of that. This is fair comment; there is no set of circumstances where the hacking of a mobile phone could be legal as a news-gathering tool.
Sufficient law exists to protect individuals from this kind of behaviour and if, in the face of criminal charges, reporters are not deterred what use is a code of ethics or set of regulations?
Since the purpose of the press is to inform the public is it not reasonable to suggest that it should be constrained by the same laws that apply to the public?
Well, of course that is the case but it is also clear that the press even if it is serving the public is different from the public in a number of ways. The press is a powerful institution, sufficiently powerful to make or break individuals or even governments.
The press, even in what some describe as its decline, is a very rich institution with the mainstream media having deep pockets that protect it from legal consequences. In effect, the press is far more powerful than the individuals it serves.
Thomas Gibbons, professor of law at Manchester university, submitted evidence suggesting that some form of "enforced ethics" was required to prevent media distortion since the law was silent on matters of editorial control.
He pointed out that self-regulation failed because the economic pressures on the press were greater than the journalistic ethics. This is an interesting point. He is correct in identifying media distortion as an ethical problem and one that is not directly addressed by the law.
The concept of an enforced code of ethics to prevent distortion of stories is indeed an interesting concept. The problem is in the definition of distortion.
The British press has a long tradition of partisanship arising out of its evolution from an overtly and ostensibly political, even seditious origin. Britain is curious in that it effectively has two forms of press/media regulation both very different for historical and political reasons.
Distortion is the stock in trade of some of our largest circulation newspapers and is a result of their political bias. Withholding elements of a story and exaggerating others is as old as news-gathering itself and, while it may appear disingenuous and even dishonest, it is difficult to see how any system could control this without entirely changing the traditions and practices of our free press.
Our right wing populist press has a fascination with asylum seekers, economic migrants and benefit cheats. These three groups fit neatly into one of the oldest and most popular categories of news, that of the moral panic.
The stories are often distorted to ridiculous extents, especially by the use of irrelevant analogies such as comparing the arrival of immigrants with the population of a large city or exaggerating the scale of benefit fraud by targeting either huge frauds or the number of cheats prosecuted in one day.
These stories, spun to the benefit of "Outraged of Tunbridge Wells", are a distortion and of little value to anyone looking for accurate information about any of these undoubted problems in society but they represent freedom of expression and that includes freedom to be prejudiced.
Where distortion is serious the law can, in fact, intervene. We have draconian defamation law in the UK and it is well established that distortion can amount to defamation. A distorted story can impute dishonesty, unfitness or incompetence.
One area of inaccuracy that does need some oversight is the lurid publishing in tabloid papers of health stories that are usually focussed on two main themes: health risks or dramatic breakthroughs in research and treatment.
These stories suffer from very poor corroboration of often tenuous information and range from the faintly ridiculous to the downright dangerous.
There is no excuse for not employing ethical principles. Facts can be validated when interviewing the scientist or medical professional. A couple of standard questions can put the story in context. Has this experiment/observation been corroborated elsewhere? If not, it is not scientifically valid and can be a potentially inaccurate and misleading story.
Why should ethical standards chill investigative journalism?
Turner then considers why, if statutory regulation and impartiality requirements do not chill investigative reporting on television, similar constraints should not apply to the press. It is further claimed that broadcasters rely on the press to break controversial stories and then follow up.
There is little, if any, evidence that broadcasters wait for the printed press to break stories. David Levy of the Reuters Institute told Leveson of a 2009 study:
"Broadcasters who do as much if not more investigative journalism than the press have to meet a two stage test set by Ofcom: first, is the infringement warranted: second, can you justify what you broadcast?
There is no pre-broadcast censorship but a requirement to explain and defend your approach to the public interest... [the study's authors] found no evidence that the requirement has either hindered or prevented hard-hitting and important investigations."
The statement describes the tried and tested methods of ensuring ethical standards are maintained in broadcast journalism, a platform already under tight enforceable guidelines.
What appears to be suggested is that since broadcast can manage quite well that the imposition of an Ofcom-style regulation on the print media would not chill investigative journalism.
But the hacking scandal is not about investigative journalism. The Leveson inquiry is not about investigative journalism, it is about media ethics and ultimately criminality. We have already seen that the two journalistic traditions of print and broadcast have starkly contrasting cultures as one would expect from beings born in different eras and for different reasons.
Witness after witness stated that the purpose of the press is to inform the public and to hold powerful people to account. The purpose of the print media is principally to make money as was succinctly put by Jeremy Paxman in his statement to the inquiry:
"The only thing that seems to concern newspaper proprietors more than articulating their prejudices is accumulating money."
The question is not therefore whether a new Ofcom-style regulatory body for the press would deter investigative journalism but would it so materially affect a newspaper tradition as to make it no longer viable.
Tomorrow: Chris Atkins, the man who made the Starsuckers documentary, argues that the industry needs an independent regulator with a statutory backstop
*The phone hacking scandal: journalism on trial, second and updated edition, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, is published by Abramis. Available at a special Media Guardian price of £15 from [email protected]