Press self-regulation has failed, no matter what the newspapers tell you, writes Hacked Off director Brian Cathcart.
Nearly 45 years ago, when he was a fresh arrival on the British media scene, Rupert Murdoch gave an interview to BBC television in which he discussed the power of the press. He declared: “A newspaper can create great controversies, it can stir up argument within the community… it can throw light on injustices – just as it can do the opposite: it can hide things and be a great power for evil.”
In Britain today, the press is in the dock for an appalling catalogue of wrongs and abuses, from hacking the voicemails of grieving families and crime victims, to the industrial-scale use of private investigators operating on and beyond the borderline of legality, and the serial libelling of people caught in the public eye, such as the parents of missing Madeleine McCann.
This is bad enough, but the charge sheet also includes a crime that for obvious reasons is rarely noticed or discussed and yet should be more shaming for the industry than all the rest. That crime is self-censorship.
Over a dozen or so years in which so much wrong was done by so many journalists to so many people, most British national newspapers ruthlessly chose to exercise their “great power for evil”. To protect themselves and their methods they hid, buried or grossly misrepresented all the stories that reflected badly on them. And it wasn’t just Murdoch papers hiding their own wrongdoing: other national papers covered up for the Murdoch papers, and vice versa. In other words, in a market where editors claim to be fiercely competitive, they were consistently shielding each other from public scrutiny.
Here is one example. The phone-hacking story broke in 2006, when a News of the World reporter and a private investigator on the Murdoch payroll were arrested. Between then and the end of 2010, when News International finally admitted this wasn’t the work of “one rogue reporter”, the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror papers carried just 11 articles about hacking. In four and a half years, the two papers barely informed their readers about a growing scandal affecting their keenest rival – a scandal that involved the hacking of the phones of film and pop stars, royal princes and top footballers, to sorts of people who normally only have to sneeze to get coverage in the Mirror. Yet when their rights were abused by the News of the World, somehow it wasn’t worth mentioning, let alone investigating. To put the Mirror’s failure in context, in those same four and a half years, The Guardian published 237 articles on hacking.
What are the implications of this? Anyone who has watched the British press at work knows that when they move in a pack, when they decide to take up a scandal and exploit it, they exert enormous power. Dozens of government ministers have been forced from office in this way, many business leaders have been brought down and countless celebrities shamed. But month after month and year after year, despite the existence of strong evidence of wrongdoing at News International, there was no concerted press campaign to extract the full story, let alone to bring down the management.
Not just the Mirror, but the Times, the Telegraph and the Express papers buried the story. Nor were suspicious connections with senior police officers and politicians seriously challenged. The Guardian fought on almost alone, and the result was that justice was delayed or denied. When the public inquiry was finally established under Lord Justice Leveson, all of the papers rightly found themselves in the dock.
Self-censorship of this kind is not only an abuse of power, or as Murdoch put it, the use of press power “for evil”. It is also the grossest hypocrisy. Papers that express fury at the misdeeds of ministers or police chiefs or hospital administrators or railway companies should be ashamed to have turned a blind eye to criminal abuses in their own industry.
But it still goes on. I write on the eve of the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, after more than a year of hearings and deliberations. And still the press cannot be honest and open with its readers. To protect their power and to duck accountability, the editors and proprietors of most national papers have agreed on their own model of “self-regulation”, which they are selling vigorously to their readers as if it was the only show in town. They do not mention the 60 years of failure of self-regulation; instead they publish a stream of articles and editorials promoting the false idea that this is the only way to save what they call “press freedom” – by which they mean their own lack of accountability.
I am director of Hacked Off, a small campaigning group that has been pressing for real change, and in particular calling on all political parties to wait for the Leveson report and implement it, providing it is workable. We have close links with many victims of press abuses, including a few celebrities, but our ranks include academics, journalists, lawyers and many others.
The national press in Britain is happy to attack and misrepresent our views but almost never happy to print them. Nor did papers choose to publish the results of an opinion poll we commissioned, a poll which showed that a remarkable 78 per cent of British voters want a strong, new regulator for the press that is backed by law, compared with only 10 per cent who favour continued self-regulation by editors. Only two papers reported that poll, devoting all of four paragraphs to it between them, so the public has barely heard of it. And it is not a rogue poll because another, carried out by another body, has since come up with very similar results.
The Jimmy Savile story has cast additional light on newspaper self-censorship and propaganda, revealing that no lessons have been learned. After commercial television (which incidentally is regulated under statute) opened the floodgates of revelation about the sexual activities of the former BBC presenter, most of the national papers, which hate the BBC, exploded in outrage at the broadcaster’s supposed failures.
The BBC voluntarily set up two independent inquiries in three weeks (whereas in the hacking scandal it took five years before News International had one foisted upon it by government).
But there is still no inquiry into the failure of the press to uncover Savile’s alleged crimes. Not one paper, it seems, had so much as conducted a proper investigation, even though rumours of Savile’s sexual activities had been circulating for years. Nor can they hide behind the old excuse that they were gagged by the libel laws: Savile died in 2011 and you can’t libel the dead. In all their acres of furious reporting, you will find hardly a word of complaint about the long, shaming silence of the press.
As the poll shows, however, the British public is not fooled. We seem to be reaching a point where, simply because something appears in national newspapers, readers conclude that the truth must lie elsewhere. Perhaps the “great power for evil” has begun to rebound on those who have used it.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off and professor of journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart