The Media Column: With the Sewel story, The Sun is back on the attack - and Rebekah Brooks' return is imminent

The 'Lord Coke' scandal is surely among the early contenders for scoop of the year

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The Independent Online

With the recent presence of Rebekah Brooks in the London headquarters of News UK, ahead of her expected return to a senior role in Rupert Murdoch’s empire, The Sun on Sunday’s skewering of the House of Lords standards chief Lord Sewel was timely indeed.

There were prostitutes, political indiscretions and a pompous peer with a staggering hypocrisy and a penchant for snuffling fat lines of cocaine. He even put on an orange bra. No wonder The Sun noted in an editorial that the story had all the elements you might expect in “a farce about Westminster shenanigans”.

What made the story “a slam dunk”, in the words of a Sun executive, were Lord Sewel’s roles as Deputy Speaker of the Lords and, crucially, Chairman of Committees, meaning he oversaw standards in the Upper House. That amounted to a cast-iron public interest defence to a story captured on hidden cameras.

The “Lord Coke” scandal is surely among the early contenders for scoop of the year. It is a tabloid tale of a kind that many had thought confined to history in the wake of the closure of the News of the World and the supposed muzzling of the popular press by the long-running Leveson process.

Almost seven years ago to the day, the former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley had walked out of the High Court with a record £60,000 in damages after the News of the World used secret cameras to film him cavorting with prostitutes wearing German military clothing, something the paper falsely interpreted as Nazi role play.

The ruling seemed to set the paper on a downward spiral that culminated in its closure, three years later, as the phone-hacking scandal provoked public and political uproar over tabloid sleaze.

The Lord Sewel exposé has provoked not a single complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso). That’s because the case against the lecherous lord could not be clearer.

But there will be some who will see in the re-emergence of this old-school red-top splash a sign that the tabloids feel they’re back in the clear; that a Conservative election victory means the papers are free, under the new Ipso, to go back to the old ways – despite the fact that the press watchdog has handed out punitive judgments on The Sun, The Times and The Daily Telegraph in its first year.

Certainly Mr Mosley, talking to me from France, is of the view that The Sun on Sunday’s actions were “absolutely reprehensible” and that Lord Sewel has a case against the paper. “I feel that he should make a complaint to Ipso or take them to court,” he said. “He had a reasonable expectation of privacy. I think, and this is a fairly radical view, that there was no public interest in The Sun publishing the story, quite the reverse.”

His argument is that Lord Sewel’s amusements, involving the use of a Class A drug, were primarily a matter for the police. By publishing the story, the paper gave the peer the chance to destroy evidence. “It’s clearly wrong for either a private individual or a newspaper to seek to make profit if they get information about criminal activity,” he said.

Sources at the newspaper admit there was never any prospect of the police being brought in ahead of publication and risking the loss of a valuable exclusive. Despite the once proud boast of Mazher Mahmood, the suspended former star reporter of The Sun on Sunday, to have been responsible for more than 250 criminal convictions, the paper does not believe it has to do the police’s job.

Relations between the tabloid and Scotland Yard have probably been irrevocably destroyed by Operation Elveden, which caused a succession of Sun reporters to face – in almost all cases failed – prosecutions for paying police officers for information. Perhaps a need to improve relations explains the Met’s ostentatious 6pm raid on Lord Sewel’s flat with the media in tow on 27 July.

I think Max Mosley has got this one wrong. Reviled by much of the newspaper industry as an enemy of free speech because of his campaign against press intrusions of privacy, he has stood up courageously in the face of unwarranted personal attacks. But there are big differences between his case and that of Lord Sewel.

Putting aside for the moment the involvement of drugs, the cross-bencher had a key role in Parliament, as he happily pointed out in a sanctimonious blog about tougher standards in the Lords, published in The Huffington Post a week before he was busted. “The actions of a few damage our reputation,” he said with delicious irony, noting that “the House now has the power to expel permanently”. He then sought to dodge his own expulsion despite his untenable position.

The public, as the lack of complaints to Ipso suggests, welcomed this story. It enjoyed the discomfort of the press after the hacking scandal but there is an enduring suspicion that parliamentary sex abuse has long been suppressed. The Sun on Sunday instantly recognised the coincidence of Lord Sewel’s romps taking place in Dolphin Square, the alleged base of a child-abuse ring of Seventies politicians. The paper included a column on the square’s seedy past.

In his ramblings to the prostitutes, the peer moaned about his Lords attendance allowance of £300 a day. Parliamentary expenses abuse has been the subject of great tension between Westminster and Fleet Street since The Daily Telegraph’s revelations of 2009 and so the peer’s comments helped ensure that The Sun’s story had the unanimous support of its rivals. The Daily Mail was soon highlighting outrageous attendance allowance claims and the Daily Mirror led calls for scrapping the Upper House.

The Lord Sewel scoop arrived at The Sun on Sunday as what one of its journalists called a “walk in”, rather than as the result of a long-term investigation. But the paper had received previous tips about the peer and had its eye on him. It also thought hard about the execution of the story, which was handled by the experienced reporter Stephen Moyes.

Once it might have gone to Mahmood but he’s not been in the paper since his disastrous drugs sting on singer Tulisa Contostavlos, where his evidence led to the collapse of her trial last year. These cocaine traps – set for hapless celebrities and those connected to them, from ex-boxer Ricky Hatton to the father of footballer Jermaine Pennant – had begun to feel very tired.

The Sewel story had a very different quarry. For The Sun, it follows its revelations of Sieg-heiling royals. Rupert Murdoch’s journalists may have libelled Max Mosley for Nazi associations but they had more success with the Queen.

The Sun is back on the attack but it is now more careful and even has Stig Abell, former director of the old Press Complaints Commission, editing its Monday edition. Rebekah might feel it is safe enough for her return.

Practically perfect ...  but far from original

There’s a long history to The Sun’s seemingly inspired splash headline on the migration crisis: “Softy Calais goes ballistic …  Frenchies are atrocious!”

The idea has previously surfaced in the sports pages, most recently in Scotland where Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC offered the chance for a Mary Poppins pun. The Sun’s sub-editors celebrated a victory by the Highland club 15 years ago with: “Super Caley go ballistic … Celtic are atrocious.”

Even that was not original. Years earlier, the Liverpool Echo heralded a brilliant performance by winger Ian Callaghan against Queen Park Rangers with: “Super Cally goes ballistic, QPR atrocious.”

Meanwhile, the Hillsborough disaster campaigners continue to influence the Sun’s position within the wider UK media. In 2013, Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor who oversaw the tabloid’s infamous coverage of the 1989 tragedy, was chased out of The Daily Telegraph – which hired him as an online columnist – after complaints to Tony Gallagher, then editor, and sports writers Henry Winter and Alan Hansen. Last week, it emerged that Bill Newman, The Sun’s managing editor at the time of Hillsborough, had been “sacked” from the board of the Independent Press Standards Organisation because of his connection to the tabloid.

TV Gypsy-bashers need education

The Independent Press Standards Organisation is to embark on an “outreach programme” with such bodies as Mind, the Samaritans and facial disfigurement charity Changing Faces to improve press reporting on these sensitive issues.

Important work has already been done with Travellers’ groups to produce guidelines for newsrooms and reduce inappropriate terminology. Although they might circulate this learning to the broadcast sector, where Gypsy-bashing has become something of a sport. Channel 4 has made an entire TV genre out of the subject and was censured by the Advertising Association for a poster featuring Traveller children, promising telly that was “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier”.

Last week’s decision by Ofcom to clear Top Gear over its use of the term “pikey” was infuriating to Traveller groups and sends out the wrong message. Like the BBC Trust, the regulator decided that the expression was not abusive to Gypsies but to people who “live on the cheap” – something Jeremy Clarkson and pals won’t have to do after their lucrative deal with Amazon.

Twitter: @iburrell

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