Ian Burrell: What the past four months have really taught us about the tabloid press

 

Is Leveson working? Four months into an inquiry which Richard Desmond described last week as "the worst thing that has ever happened for newspapers in my lifetime" there are fears that this supposed cleansing process may render the press more toxic in the eyes of the British public than when the hearing began.

The inquiry is a "circus horror show", according to Chris Horrie, who exposed News International tabloid culture 22 years ago in his book Stick It Up Your Punter, an account of life at The Sun under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, one of Lord Justice Leveson's witnesses last week. "Kelvin MacKenzie is a national treasure and he's very funny," he says. "But asking him for advice on the ethics of journalism is like asking Harold Shipman for advice on medical ethics. This thing is just a circus."

Michael Williams, a Fleet Street veteran and now lecturer in journalism and head of media ethics at the University of Central Lancashire, has also found the inquiry difficult to watch. "Nobody thought the tabloid press was noble but this is the mucky innards laid bare," he says. "The editors and newspaper owners haven't got their act together and are expressing eccentric, rambling views on where the industry is going. It just conforms to the view that the press behave badly."

The first stage of Leveson evidence allowed critics of the tabloids – Steve Coogan, Sienna Miller and JK Rowling among them – to paint a picture of an industry out of control. Last week was Fleet Street's opportunity to demonstrate that it could be a force for good in society. Editors from Lionel Barber of the Financial Times to Dominic Mohan of The Sun appeared before the judge.

They appeared very much on the defensive and accepting the need for radical reform, says Peter Cole, head of the department of journalism studies at the University of Sheffield. "The swing since Christmas seems to be that it's a given that the PCC is useless," he says, adding that he disagrees with that view. "I think Leveson is going to come out with this huge critique of the popular press. My feeling is that it's probably going to do more to change things than I expected – it's not a 'kick it into the long grass' inquiry." Leveson, he adds, is a "man on a mission".

 

This notion that British red-top readers might switch to high-minded content is wholly unrealistic, argues Professor Tim Luckhurst of the University of Kent's Centre for Journalism. "It's naive beyond the bounds of plausibility to imagine that the future of the British media can involve millions of readers of The Sun, The Mirror, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday instead choosing to read the FT," he says. "We need to think hard about sustaining a free press that can entertain as well as inform." Luckhurst is relieved the "festival of whinging" that he says characterised the early part of the inquiry is over and heartened by recent elements that suggested "we're beginning to move towards a more robust system of self-regulation which could conceivably have the desired effect". George Brock, head of journalism at City University, London, says the inquiry has already succeeded in "making people think about what isn't right and how to change it".

But Horrie says fiddling with the structure of watchdogs is a distraction from a scandal of unprecedented press criminality. "External regulation is far less effective than giving rights to journalists to refuse to do crappy things. I know from speaking to journalists at The Sun and News of the World that there was a regime of management terror and people would do anything to keep their jobs," he says. "We need to get Leveson out of the way and get on with the criminal prosecutions."

i.burrell@independent.co.uk

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... with this review
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
i100
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam