James Cusick: Can Leveson Inquiry remember what it's for?

Our writer gets a taste of the battles ahead as hacking inquiry cranks up

Friday 07 October 2011 00:00
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The advisory note from the Leveson Inquiry described the gathering in the QE2 conference centre yesterday as a "seminar". It wasn't. Resembling a very bad edition of Question Time, where normal people were banished and replaced by room-full of big egos, it became a forum trying to promote the myth that unethical or illegal activity never happened in Britain's squeaky-clean media. The opening remark from Sir David Bell, the former chairman of the Financial Times, sounded like an appeal to the Guinness book of records. "I doubt a gathering like this has ever happened before," he said. Sadly, there will be no new entry. Check the reservations at The Ivy or Soho House any night. They'll look similar.

Sir David said he wanted to start "a debate". The seminar was billed as an examination of "the competitive pressures on the press and the impact on journalism".

The media analyst Claire Enders offered comprehensive evidence that the UK's media landscape is a tough place to survive. Young people were using the printed media less than older people; despite the growth of everything from the iPad to smart phones, "analogue dollars still equalled digital pennies".

If the media great-and-good didn't already know this, they were in the wrong place.

It is the continuing fallout from News International's deployment of phone hacking and other dark arts that makes the Leveson Inquiry necessary.

But yesterday's gathering suggested many may have forgotten why they were there.

The former News of the World editor Phil Hall could have reminded them. Instead, he recalled his first chat with Rupert Murdoch, who told him circulation of the tabloid would fall by a million over the next few years. Rupert didn't mind at all, said Hall, because all he wanted was a "great competitive newspaper". It sounded like Hall had got "The News of the Screws" confused with The New York Times. Pressures in the NOTW newsroom? "Only our professional pride." The former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt resigned last year over what he saw as the paper's Islamophobia. His seminar input was clear: tabloid newsdesks are evil and twisted and it's no fun in the gutter. Newsdesks, said Peppiatt, worked like this: "Tell us what we want to hear and we won't ask how you got it." That should have been the seminar's cue to explore the ethics of illegal phone intercepts, the hiring of suspect private detectives, the bribing of police officers, the uncomfortably close relationships between the Metropolitan Police and senior NI executives. It didn't happen. Instead, the Q&A sessions that followed descended into hybrid bar chats, with each editor saying, in their own words, why my paper, my boys, my standards, are better than yours.

It took the intervention of Ian Hargreaves, professor of journalism at Cardiff University and a former editor of The Independent, to remind the inquiry that they were in danger of missing the ethical point – that phone hacking really couldn't be explained away by talk of the industry's new-found commercial pressures. Roy Greenslade, a former Mirror editor, cited the Profumo affair as the beginning of the trouble. The editor of The Sun, Dominic Mohan, said there was no trouble and repeated the Hall maxim: "Our pressure is our professional pride." The bosses from the Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday, the Mirror, and the people from The People, all agreed. Peppiatt's gutter was a land they didn't recognise. The seminar had just descended into back-patting.

If Lord Leveson allows months of this, his inquiry will fail before it has started. A talking shop with a delusionary rose-tinted view of Fleet Street isn't what was ordered.

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