Ian Burrell: Newspapers must all pull together

 

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The Independent Online

There is a climate of fear in many British newsrooms. Along with the spectre of the hacking and blagging scandals, which will haunt the industry for years, there is a real prospect of reporters being accused of bribery.

Such is the concern over the implications of the Bribery Act that Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, told its journalists to attend seminars on the potential consequences of the legislation. Staff on The Sun have been warned that payments to sources who give information about their employers could result in legal action that would see them suspended from work, pending a court hearing, and without a public interest defence.

The law was put into effect this summer to clamp down on business corruption but has the potential to kill many traditional news gathering practices, particularly at the popular end of the press. For red-top showbusiness writers, courting contacts on the sets of films, soap operas and entertainment shows such as The X Factor has long been part of the job. The contacts would normally expect financial reward for their tip-offs.

One tabloid television writer said: "On every story, you now have to ask the source: 'This didn't come from the set, did it?' The worry for showbiz journalists is that often these stories appear to be quite frivolous but they're the ones that could land people in deep trouble. The entertainment PRs like publicity but if there's a story they're unhappy with they can use this law to settle a score."

For press diarists who fill their columns with gossip on the rich and famous, trusted sources might range from staff at a celebrity agency to night club doormen and concierges at luxury hotels. Payments to such people could be breaches of the Bribery Act, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years in jail.

Richard Compton Miller, former editor of the famous William Hickey column in The Daily Express, says: "I had a huge slush fund to pay people who sent us material. That included the odd butler ringing up to give us information – these stately homes had badly paid staff who occasionally used to ring us up with tales. There are people who work for companies who get diary stories and now people are going to be unable to accept them unless they don't pay them. You can see that papers are terrified of running privacy stories, such as the marriage break up story which used to be a diary staple. The late Nigel Dempster would have found it much harder to run a diary column now."

So what, some might say, that the tabloids will struggle to get soap scoops or find out what happens at swanky parties. Is it any of their business? This ignores the fact that tabloid papers, despite their problems, remain hugely popular and sell nearly 8 million copies every day. Readers may not be so keen on a paper that is devoid of insider gossip.

"Suddenly no one reads a popular newspaper or has ever picked up one of these tawdry rags, and yet they sell millions every day," says David Banks, former editor of the Daily Mirror, of the current debate on the future of the media. "What is being attempted is to drive a wedge between the quality press and the popular press." He thinks the weakened press is being hunted by politicians and the police. "When the politicians hear of Rupert Murdoch turning over millions in compensation to the Dowlers, they see the press as on the run. It's a worrying time not just for red tops but for every newspaper because there's a pursuit, especially by the Met who've had a rough time and want to get back at the press. I'm kind of glad I'm out of it now."

Scotland Yard's use of the Official Secrets Act to try to force journalists on The Guardian to reveal their sources is seen by some as part of the same picture. A Daily Mail editorial last week referred to the threat of the Official Secrets Act and Bribery Act and argued that, in addressing the hacking issue, "there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater".

The debate goes on. In London last week, the revered former Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans hosted a roundtable discussion headed "The Press We Deserve". Among the audience was Bill Hagerty, former editor of The People and now editor of The British Journalism Review. "There was not one popular newspaper voice," says Hagerty of the 13 people on the roundtable. "They were all from [the 'quality'] end of the market."

Similar observations – of lack of representation of tabloid and investigative journalism – have been made of the panel drawn up by Lord Justice Leveson for his inquiry into media standards. Should that inquiry propose a regulatory system that the press is unhappy with, presided over by similar figures to those on the Leveson panel, it may not be industry funded, as is the case with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). That might mean a measure of state control.

Hagerty sees a press that has lost confidence and is hopelessly split between upmarket and popular, where Express Newspapers owner Richard Desmond has withdrawn his four national titles from the remit of the PCC. "The industry is as far away as it ever was from trying to get something moving that will clean up its act and at least begin to restore public trust," he says. "The only way we are going to get out of this mess is if the industry gets together."

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