Ian Burrell: 'Press ethics? It's like asking Harold Shipman's advice on medical ethics'

Monday 16 January 2012 11:00

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's 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."

Michael Williams, a Fleet Street veteran and now journalism and media ethics lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, has found the inquiry hard to watch. "Nobody thought the tabloid press was noble but this is the mucky innards laid bare," he says. "Editors and newspaper owners do not seem to have got their act together and are expressing these eccentric and slightly rambling views on where the industry is going. It just conforms to the public view that the press behave badly."

He says Leveson has contributed to his university cancelling a post-graduate course in print journalism this year because students no longer see it as a suitable career.

The first stage of Leveson evidence (which took place before Christmas) allowed critics of the tabloids, including Steve Coogan, Sienna Miller and JK Rowling, 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 to accept the need for radical reform, says Peter Cole, head of the department of journalism studies at Sheffield University. "The swing since Christmas seems to be that it's a given that the Press Complaints Commission 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 one of those 'kick it into the long grass' inquiries."

This notion that British red-top readers might switch to high-minded content is wholly unrealistic, argues Professor Tim Luckhurst, of Kent University's Centre for Journalism. "It's naïve beyond the bounds of plausibility to imagine that the future of the British media can involve millions of readers of The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday instead choosing to read the Financial Times," he says. "We need to think hard about sustaining a free press that can entertain as well as inform."

Luckhurst is heartened by elements in last week's evidence that suggested "we are beginning to move towards a much more robust system of self-regulation which could conceivably have the desired effect". But effective for how long? Stephen Jukes, dean of the media school at Bournemouth University and former head of news at Reuters, notes how the market will be "radically different" in five years with the spread of news across online sources. He would like Leveson to focus more on matters which affect journalism in general, such as privacy, libel and content. "At some stage the inquiry has got to start covering much more fundamental questions," he says.

Others are more comfortable with the hearings. Ian Hargreaves, professor at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and a former editor of The Independent, describes the inquiry as "a marathon rumination leaving Judge Leveson personally the maximum scope to propose a detailed set of solutions". He sees the treatment of Mohan – seen by some critics as too soft – as an indication that Leveson wants his findings to command "support from all sides of the argument", not just the upmarket press.

The former Times journalist George Brock, head of journalism at City University in London, agrees. "What [Leveson] really wants to know is what will work in a popular newsroom," he says. He praises the inquiry for having provided a "focused, public platform for a lot of evidence" and for "making people think about what isn't right and how it should be changed". 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."

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