The Wriggling Begins

The News of the World has just published its last ever edition after an increasing number of revelations / allegations over the tactic of phone hacking and the expectation that worse behaviour is yet to be revealed. The story is so big and the behaviour of the NOTW so outrageous that the newspaper industry has turned its criticism inwards in a rare competition of which newspaper can seem to be the most disgusted by the behaviour of the NOTW – the Daily Mail for example leading with a front page assertion that the NOTW had ‘died of shame’.

This is unprecedented, but it has also been short-lived and entirely false. Already the newspapers are preparing their defence – and fittingly the defence, like so much modern journalism, is based on distortions, logical fallacies and scaremongering. The threat to the press after the closure of the NOTW is that it is finally being widely acknowledged that the Press Complaints Commission is an utterly ineffective regulator and that it must be replaced with something far more powerful – a complete move away from the heady days of press self-regulation. The press, therefore, are desperate to protect the PCC and their own freedom to lie, distort and bully with the impunity that they have enjoyed alongside the NOTW – for it must be remembered, repeated and shared that the NOTW are not an exception here.

And so it begins, the backlash, the warnings and the frankly insidious arguments that the proper and fit regulation of the press is dangerous to democracy and is motivated by devious politicians rather than a devious and dishonest press.

Andrew Gilligan writing in the Daily Telegraph [‘Phone hacking scandal: enemies of free press are circling‘] warns that:

The clear danger now is that they [politicians] will see the public anger about phone hacking as their chance to push through a “new and different regulatory system”…

That would be wrong…

As Iraq showed, Britain’s democratic institutions are relatively weak. But what makes up for that is the strength of our democratic culture – pressure groups, academia, and, above all, free, robust journalism: the very force that brought this latest scandal, and that of Iraq, to light. Be really careful before you let that go.

The Daily Mail have put their army of compliant columnists into action:

  • PETER HITCHENS: Politicians want Fleet Street to be tamed… you need to ask why
  • MAX HASTINGS: A very imperfect trade: British journalism has received a body blow but without a free Press we would all be poorer
  • STEPHEN GLOVER: Cameron can’t be allowed to shackle the Press

The message is a clear distortion of the reality of what regulation sets out to do – and why press regulation is desperately needed. No-one is attempting to ‘tame’, ‘shackle’ or diminish the freedom of the press. Regulation is merely trying to ensure that newspapers are properly accountable for their actions – and as the press feels that it is fit to hold us all accountable for our actions it seems only fair that we have satisfactory recourse to ensure they do so fairly.

Let’s just answer one question here, the indirect question asked by Peter Hitchens: ‘Politicians want Fleet Street to be tamed… you need to ask why’.

Ok, here goes.

Research carried out by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News discovered that over a ten year period the PCC had received 28,227 complaints. Over 90% of those complaints were rejected on technical grounds without the PCC even investigating their content. Out of the 28,227 complaints just 197 were upheld by an adjudication – that is just 0.69%. What’s worse is that the adjudications even when successful do not punish the newspaper in question satisfactorily (i.e. such punishment is not powerful enough to change the behaviour of the newspaper in the future). As Davies comments:

Since most complainants… find that the courts are closed to them by the sheer expense of suing, this leaves newspapers in a position of considerable security. The Daily Mail has a special place here.

Davies discovered that the Daily Mail had ‘been provoking justifiable complaint against unethical behaviour at just over three times the rate of the other national titles’ with the repeated invasion of privacy, inaccuracies or simply ‘taking the truth and distorting it’. Whilst the Mail has happily been attacking the NOTW over its journalistic malpractice there must be a lot of nervous journalists in Northcliffe house – including Paul Dacre – for how long will the Mail avoid damaging revelations about its own behaviour?

A report by the Information Commissioner’s Office titled ‘What price privacy now? The first six months progress in halting the unlawful trade in confidential personal information‘ [pdf] has a neat little table on page 9 showing the number of transactions positively identified for each newspaper alongside the number of journalists involved. The Daily Mail is top with 952 transactions involving 58 journalists. To put this into perspective: the News of the World is in fifth place with just 182 transactions and 19 journalists. The Mail on Sunday – the newspaper that Peter Hitchens is so proud to write for – is one place above the News of the World with 266 transactions involving 33 journalists. The Daily Mail ‘Weekend Magazine’ supplement and the Mail on Sunday ‘Night and Day’ supplement also feature in the table.

Furthermore the lawyers of Associated Newspapers haven’t contacted the New Statesman over the allegations made in a Hugh Grant article in which he bugs former News of the World executive Paul McMullan. Grant recorded McMullan claim that the Mail did use stories based on hacking:

For about four or five years they’ve absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren’t. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.

Nor have the lawyers been in touch with Nick Davies who writes of the Daily Mail:

Looking back at these cases – at the PCC and in the courts – a pattern begins to emerge: facts are swept aside or distorted; the story is published; the subject of the story then complains and is confronted by the wealth and cleverness of the Mail which will fight them right up to the point of final defeat, when, if need be, it will surrender and offer some kind of deal. And the pattern repeats. It repeats because the penalty is no match for the rewards of the behaviour which is being penalised.

The Mail is deriving at least some of its commercial and political success precisely from the fact that it can play fast and loose with the facts and frequently have no fear of the consequences: the PCC bails them out; the victim can’t afford to sue’ or, if the victim does sue, the paper can live with the cost.

The focus at this moment is on the News of the World and what allegations will bear fruit, what fresh revelations will unfold and what punishment with be meted out to those involved – and how high up that punishment will be able to extend. As a consequence of the actions of the NOTW the PCC will now almost certainly be disbanded and replaced with some new form of regulation. This must happen in order for the press to have any motivation to change their behaviour. However, such changes should not take place until every newspaper is properly investigated to establish whether they were also guilty like the NOTW of illegal, unethical and shameful behaviour.

We know that the Daily Mail in 2010 was still attracting the most ‘resolved’ complaints through the PCC (66, compared to just 18 for the News of the World). We also know that the Daily Mail has a huge amount of political and social influence and its reporting serves not just to ‘mislead its readers about the state of the world but to distort the whole political process’ [NicK Davies, again]. And at the end of his chapter on Mail aggression Davies concludes:

It’s the aggression that makes the Mail powerful. I know of nothing anywhere in the rest of the world’s media which matches the unmitigated spite of an attack from the Daily Mail. And since it is part of an industry in Britain whose sole attempt at regulation is an organisation which rejects more than 90% of complaints without even considering their content, that aggression is free to cripple reputations, free to kill ideas, regardless of justice, regardless of truth.

He also quotes and unnamed senior Labour source in a book by John Lloyd:

‘The Daily Mail is an extraordinary product. It springs from the mind of Paul Dacre who has the kind of prejudices and beliefs no one knows about. I won’t go into them. But he is accountable to no one. He has absolute and unaccountable power.’

We cannot allow the Daily Mail or any other newspaper to turn the story of how journalism has routinely descended to the lowest depths of depravity to pursue the most inane or invasive stories into some kind of politically motivated attack on the free press. The press must take responsibility for their actions and realise that as – in the words of Paul Dacre – the ‘guardians of truth’ they must ensure that what they print is actually a fair and accurate reflection of the truth. Newspapers must no longer be allowed to print untruths or comment as news or have a virtual immunity from the ramifications of being caught doing so.

Good journalism will always be needed as a check on the rich and powerful. Good journalism has nothing to fear from any new regulator. Only the serial bullies and distorters of truth should fear proper, robust and proactive regulation. It is no wonder the Daily Mail is already attacking the very notion that the PCC should be scrapped. Proper and fit regulation will destroy the Daily Mail’s entire editorial outlook. Let’s do everything we can to make sure this happens, the world will be a brighter place without it.

Apologies for so liberally quoting Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News. Do please buy a copy; it is a revelation and essential reading for anyone just becoming interested in the state of the British print media.

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