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


Monday 16 January 2012 01:00

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 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."


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