Paul Vallely: Why I am proud to be a British journalist

The Leveson inquiry is revealing much that is inexcusable - including the PM's behaviour - but it is not a fair reflection of our press

Share

I got a message from a 94-year-old nun last week. She was so sorry, she said, that I was a journalist, but she was praying for me. It has not been a good week to be a scribbler. The Leveson inquiry has offered up a long catalogue of newspaper infamy. So it may seem odd to have responded that, this week of all weeks, I still feel proud to be a journalist.

There has been much to bear. The low point was, of course, the heart-rending cry "She's alive!" from the mother of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who had been given false hope when messages from the teenager's mobile phone were deleted by some hacking journalist. The mother's eyes sparked feverishly as she recounted the moment to the inquiry.

But there was also the brittle exhaustion of Kate McCann as the inquiry heard example after example of newspapers' casual disregard for the truth after her three-year-old daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal. Among the calumnies was one that the parents had sold their daughter into slavery to pay off family debts.

On it went. A 15-year-old boy took his own life after cavalier press lies that his murdered sister had been a bully. The business adviser of the supermodel Elle Macpherson went into a psychiatric facility after being accused of leaking to the press when the model's phone was actually being hacked. The actress Sienna Miller accused her own mother of betrayal when the true culprits were reporters working for Rupert Murdoch.

Yet there was something uncomfortable about it in another sense. It was hard to feel the same sense of associative shame over the footballer's wife Sheryl Gascoigne, who appeared on I'm a Celebrity, wrote a biography, and sold her wedding pictures to Hello! – and now was bemoaning invasion of privacy.

The comedian Steve Coogan seemed slightly out of proportion with his complaint: "This guy sat outside my house! It's just a risible, deplorable profession." Sitting outside someone's house is not quite in the same league as the mendacity, intimidation, spite, blackmail and theft that Lord Justice Leveson heard of elsewhere. And there was the odour of sanctimony about the lament of Max Mosley that an exposé of his sado-masochistic orgies pushed his son to suicide, as if his own behaviour played no part in the fatal shame and embarrassment.

So it was interesting to hear on Friday that a leading QC, Paul McBride, had pronounced the coverage of Leveson "hysterical". There were far better things, he said, to be doing with public money and police time just now than investigating contraventions of the Telecommunications Act. Then the father of one of those killed in London's 7/7 bombings, Graham Foulkes, a magistrate whose phone was hacked, decided not to offer evidence to Leveson claiming the inquiry had been "hijacked by so-called celebrities using it for their own purposes".

A number of counter-cultural thoughts occur to me. For a start, I met that old nun 25 years ago, in Ethiopia where I was reporting on the terrible famine. What people such as me wrote then undoubtedly spurred efforts which saved thousands of lives. Despite all Murdoch's people splashing about in their foul swamp of wickedness and criminality, the state of British journalism is generally sound and even envied around the world. Some mistakes are inevitable when you work as fast as journalists do. But its investigative reach and tenacity remain impressive.

The corrupted culture of the News of the World was exposed through 18 months of dogged work by a handful of assiduous journalists on The Guardian and The Independent papers. Without them, the Murdoch empire would have sailed on unscathed and David Cameron would almost certainly have allowed it to take full control of BSkyB. Other parties should not escape whipping; relationships between New Labour and News International also had the feel of a cosy cabal.

For decades, British politicians have feared that Murdoch's top-selling red-tops could swing elections against them, and some feared exposure or ridicule of some embarrassing aspect of their private lives. Politicians and proprietors have repeatedly done one another favours; indeed it may be the News of the World's last boon from beyond the grave to have provoked such an endless cavalcade of complaining celebrities that everyone forgets that the real scandal here – the unseemly relationship between that paper's former editor Andy Coulson and the Cameron government for which he was a key election adviser.

The smoke of celebrity indignation is nicely obscuring that just now, though Coogan's testimony was uncomfortable for the Prime Minister's former head of communications, who has yet to be brought to account. But, by and large, Mr Cameron must be pleased at the success of his cynical ploy to cast the Leveson brief as wide as possible to distract attention from the Conservatives' Coulson cancer.

It is also easy to forget that the much-deplored tabloid tradition of paying the police and others for information is not always a violation of the public interest. The flood of evidence about MPs fiddling millions of pounds of expenses came from a CD of detailed spreadsheets of parliamentary expense claims for which the Telegraph gave money to a public official.

Those on the receiving end of journalism often do not appreciate the attention. Reporting can often be institutionalised rudeness. As editor of The Sunday Times, Andrew Neil was wont to repeat the old adage: news is something someone, somewhere, does not want to see printed.

Even so there is something specious about the argument that the price of preserving the freedom of the press is that quality papers have to defend the right of the gutter press to shovel shit. It is bogus to suggest that you can't have one without the other.

As Hugh Grant said in his brave and generally understated testimony to Leveson: "A free press is the cornerstone of democracy. That is a certainty. But what I see in this country are two presses. One which does exactly what a good press should – informing the public, holding a mirror up to society, holding power to account. And then, hiding under the same umbrella, a second press that has been allowed to become something toxic – a press that has enfeebled and disgraced our democracy; bribing police, emasculating parliament and enjoying the competitive sycophancy of five successive governments". He should write his own scripts more often.

The challenge for Leveson is to find a form of press regulation that is not political – politicians are the last people who should have any control over journalists – but which has effective statutory teeth. It must do more to protect privacy, but it must defend the duty of the press to investigate and expose. It should not be beyond his wit, as a member of a judiciary which itself constitutes an admirable model of an institution that is fiercely independent and yet wields the authority of the state.

In an age of increased accountability it is wrong to expect that the press should somehow be exempted from scrutiny or from being held to account. Threats to press freedoms have historically been political in nature. Today it is the press itself that is its own worst enemy.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape