Joan Smith: Phone hacking can't be separated from an aggressive newsroom culture

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The British press is the finest in the world. The British press has gone a bit wrong, but all that's needed is a few tweaks to sort the whole thing out. Alternatively, the real fault lies with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who set up a public inquiry to divert attention from his own bad judgement in hiring Andy Coulson.

I'm not endorsing any of these arguments, you understand. I'm summarising what I've heard during two days of seminars organised by Lord Justice Leveson, before his inquiry gets properly under way. To give you a flavour of the proceedings, here's former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie : "God help me that free speech comes down to the thought process of a judge who couldn't win when prosecuting counsel against Ken Dodd for tax evasion...It's that bad."

Free speech. Ah yes, we all believe in that, don't we? I certainly do, and I know plenty of journalists who've suffered at the hands of repressive foreign regimes while trying to exercise their right to free expression; for four years I chaired the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee, which allowed me to hear harrowing stories of beatings and torture in Iran, Syria, Vietnam and too many other countries to mention.

If you had arrived at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster from Mars to take part in the Leveson seminars, what I've just said might surprise you. The outbreak of high-mindedness marks a sensational change in the priorities of the popular press; suddenly everyone is talking about the horrors endured by journalists in Zimbabwe, as though those of us who are the least bit critical of tabloid culture are itching to impose a regulatory regime as oppressive as Robert Mugabe's. Actually, I'm delighted the Daily Mail occasionally writes about Zimbabwe but I don't think I'm about to see a rash of stories in the popular press about forced labour camps in Uzbekistan.

Back on Planet Earth, matters look a little different. It's not just that MacKenzie's throwaway remark about free speech comes from a man whose paper had to apologise for its shameful coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Let's not forget that led to a condemnation by the Press Complaints Commission, a boycott of The Sun on Merseyside, and a belated front-page apology for "the most terrible mistake" in its history. It's that all the impassioned talk about free expression, condemnations of "criminality" at the News of the World and debates about media regulation have been a diversion from the real story.

Phone hacking is bad enough in itself, whether it happened in one "rogue" newsroom – the current red-top defence –or was a great deal more widespread. But it's also a symptom of a wider malaise in certain sections of the press: the existence of a bullying, aggressive newsroom culture that's forgotten that stories are about living, breathing and sometimes vulnerable people. I made this point at the first Leveson seminar and since then two distinguished tabloid journalists have told me my anxieties are shared in the popular press. A former tabloid reporter, Richard Peppiatt, told the Leveson inquiry that tabloid newsrooms "are often bullying and aggressive environments". I suspect they're also very macho, and that women have to subscribe to the prevailing insensitivity if they want to get on in that world.

The phone-hacking scandal demonstrates how easy it has become for unscrupulous reporters to assemble stories at arm's length; some victims of phone hacking by the News of the World had no idea they were under surveillance, or that their voicemails had been intercepted, until they were approached by officers from the Metropolitan Police this year.

How extensive this spying operation has turned out to be is illustrated by my own experience: I'm hardly a major public figure but in May I met two officers from Operation Weeting and was shown photocopies of pages Mulcaire compiled about me and my then boyfriend as long ago as 2004. I can recall the symptoms of shock as I realised the surveillance had begun shortly after a devastating tragedy in my partner's family. Lord Leveson has designated me a "core participant" in his inquiry, and I've begun proceedings against the News of the World's parent company for breach of privacy.

The scandal goes way beyond interception of voicemail messages. I suspect that psychologists would describe what happens in some newsrooms as "depersonalisation", an attitude that strips crime victims, celebrities and people like myself of humanity. Technology has undoubtedly made it easier to collect personal information from social networking sites where the unwary – Amanda Knox, for instance, who has lived to regret mentioning her nickname "Foxy Knoxy" – place trivial but damaging snippets about themselves. But the result is that popular newspapers are full of caricatures, two-dimensional figures whose own mothers would barely recognise them.

This isn't an argument for state regulation or licensing of the press; it's about the need for a change in the values that inform the behaviour of too many reporters and editors. Listening to Kelvin MacKenzie this week, I couldn't help thinking he embodies everything that's wrong with tabloid newsrooms. This is a big ask for Leveson, but I just hope his inquiry can restore some of the compassion and ethics that brought many of us into journalism in the first place.