Many bloggers and tweeters, Lord Justice Leveson has argued this morning, are “no more than electronic versions of pub gossip”.
In his latest speech from the Australian lecture tour he is taking after producing his mammoth report on the British press, the judge has suggested that unscrupulous online writing practices might lead to traditional news organisations adopting “a casual approach to the law”.
The standards of professional reporters might be undermined, he warns. “It might lead to journalists adopting an approach which was less than scrupulous in the pursuit of stories. In order to steal a march on bloggers and tweeters, they might be tempted to cut corners, to break or at least bend the law to obtain information for stories or to infringe privacy improperly to the same end.”
Lord Justice Leveson had his crystal ball out and was looking into the future. And yet what struck me about this part of his speech at the University of Melbourne (titled “Hold the Front Page: News-Gathering in a Time of Change”) was that his comments were directly relevant to the phone-hacking scandal which prompted his enormous inquiry.
The impact of blogs and web culture in general on the working environment of tabloid newspaper reporters was part of the context in which phone hacking occurred at the News of the World.
Clive Goodman, the paper’s royal correspondent, was originally charged for a hack on the royal household that took place in 2005. By that time the net was already putting considerable pressure on the press, especially in the sphere of entertainment gossip and journalism, which was the core of the News of the World’s offering.
Indeed, Sunday newspapers felt the most vulnerable to the new medium, as they faced the long wait to the weekend knowing that a scoop could leak online in an instant. By the time Goodman was caught hacking in 2005, Camilla Wright’s “Popbitch” website was five years old, and Jamie East’s “Holy Moly” (founded in 2002) was fast building a sizeable following and reputation. The BBC’s own entertainment journalists were busy uploading stories too.
Such sites were no doubt using honourable methods to get their gossip but they were nonetheless part of the context that created the out-of-control newsroom at the News of the World. Faced with technological advances that were making their lives harder, the paper’s journalists cut corners by illegally exploiting an opportunity provided by technological change elsewhere (in mobile phone voicemail).
It’s a shame that Leveson has saved his insights about the relationship between new and old media for his fans Down Under and didn’t make more of them in his 2,000 page report, from which the internet was bizarrely almost absent.