Political stings and welcome verdicts have given Fleet Street a pleasing few days, but it doesn’t detract from the case against self-regulation
Fleet Street was feeling pretty pleased with itself at the weekend. Four Sun journalists had been found not guilty of bribing public officials after mounting a public interest defence that impressed the jury. Good. The Sunday Times won an important point in an appeal against a former Tory treasurer in a cash-for-access case. Excellent. Among other attacks on the political class, the press (the Sun again) made allegations of EU expenses fraud involving a Ukip MEP. Well done.
That’s what the press is for, as it keeps reminding its readers in its self-satisfied way. But let’s not get carried away, lads, as sections of the press are busy doing. “A victory for freedom,” thundered the Daily Mail in a tendentious double-page spread after the four acquittals. Behind its paywall, the Sun was understandably thrilled. Monday’sGuardian editorial is more measured.
But at the same time as exposing some dodgy practices, the newspapers are claiming to be cowed by a chilling factor – fear of a government-imposed Leveson style of regulation. They want the self-regulation they deplore for everyone else.
That list now includes judges, who the Sunday Times case suggests are not sufficiently robust in declaring personal interests that may influence their judgment. A shame it’s behind the paywall (Rupert needs the cash) because the paper’s now-it-can-be-revealed account of its efforts to expose judicial conflicts of interest (lots of judges have Tory backgrounds) is spectacular. So is its account of the original trial judge’s mistakes (his son, as well as his ex-MP brother, turns out to be a Tory politician). It seems he conflated quotes. Isn’t that what us hacks are supposed to do?
But in the election runup, the rightwing press are also doing something more systemic and democratically more dangerous. In their determination to help David Cameron stay in power (despite his problems with ex-treasurer, Peter Cruddas) they are trying to persuade voters that the political parties are “all as bad as each other” in accepting donations from dubious sources or in rule-bending ways. This is not true and it needs constantly to be repeated.
Ed Miliband may have his occasional problem with a hedge fund donor and threats from Unite’s leader, Len McCluskey. Nick Clegg may have ended up on the Sunday Times front page (paywall) for telling a supporter he could retain his anonymity by splitting his modest £10k donation over two years.
The minor parties have their financial wobbles too in a system which ordinary voters won’t fund via membership subs or taxes, but don’t like seeing rich men filling the gap. The fact that they want to raise taxes on the rich makes it harder to get their donations. That might even be seen as admirable in the present climate.
But this is – and always has been – primarily a problem for the party of the rich. Long before Sunday’s Observer shone an academic spotlight on donations and peerages (for which Tony Blair was wrongly hounded by a dubious police probe), the future Lord Rothermere famously remarked: “When I want a peerage I will buy one like an honest man.”
Guess which paper his family still owns? It’s a Tory democracy v plutocracy problem, as the plutocratic press knows all too well. Talking of which, another detail which gets overlooked in the excitement – Roy Greenslade acknowledges it here in passing – is that the Sun quartet would never have been charged if Rupert Murdoch’s henchfolk hadn’t handed over mountains of emails to the Met police in their very belated investigation into the (unrelated) phone-hacking scandal.
Rupert wept crocodile tears at the betrayal (it’s what crocodiles do) of his foot soldiers, but the deed was done to save his corporate skin in the US where they take fewer prisoners. This detail doesn’t get much play though its victims (sources betrayed and jailed too) are privately bitter at the sellout. There’s a layered irony in tabloids complaining about high-profile arrests, the sanctity of source protection and set-ups, but let’s leave it for now.
The Guardian’s Lisa O’Carroll sets out the Sun complex bribery case here including the extraordinary fact emerging from the two-month trial that the journalists did not realise that paying coppers or press officers bungs for information might be a criminal offence. I think I knew and I’ve never paid anyone. Having to compete with tabloid cheque book journalism (most of it legal if exploitative) is part of a broadsheet hack’s life.
But in Operation Elveden’s series of trials few tabloid journalists among the hundred or so arrested have gone before juries and there have been even fewer convictions, though some cash-for-information sources have been convicted, even jailed. More trials and even retrials are in the pipeline at the Crown Prosecution Service.
Is it a costly police and CPS witch-hunt against Fleet Street to make amends for egregious Met police failings (and complicity in the cover-up) during the phone-hacking era, newspapers and their mostly Tory supporters in parliament ask? That feeds the narrative that snooty lawyers (again evident in the Sun case), Lord Justice Leveson, vengeful politicians in all parties, lefty papers like the Guardian and campaigns like Hacked Off are trying to stifle a boisterous free press.
It’s a caricature, of course. No, the critics don’t get it all right. For instance, it is now clearer that the Sun – not least under the guidance of the newly-acquitted John Kay, a charismatic and admired colleague with an interesting CV – decided not to go down the road taken by its sister paper, the News of the World (also abandoned by Murdoch’s skin-savers), into phone hacking despite having to compete, we now all know, with its daily rivals at the Mirror who were up to their boots in it.
Sensible people have no qualms about the Guardian’s focus on what was then News International, Murdoch’s UK flagship which owned (and closed) the NoW because of the scale of the cover-up, police complicity and the politically complex background to the Murdoch global operation and its ways of doing business with governments from here to Beijing.
But the evolving Mirror case now in the courts is serious too. Let’s hope it’s not financially fatal. The Mirror may not be in its prime, but Labour is short of support in the media and the Mirror is its most loyal backer.
Nor does that excuse the Mail from repeating on Saturday the canard that it was Cameron’s decision “to take Andy Coulson (ex-NoW editor) into Downing Street” in 2010 which prompted the Guardian to pursue the phone-hacking affair to get at the Tories. It’s what Coulson believes – he told me so himself once – but it’s not true.
Why not? Because Nick Davies had long been working on the hacking scandal and cover-up – his first stories appeared before the 2010 election, with Murdoch’s power more in the frame than mere politicians. Moreover the Guardian privately warned Cameron’s office that Coulson, then his press adviser in opposition, was seriously compromised and that he should not take him into No 10.
So it was more generous to a political opponent than the Mail was when it unearthed conman Peter Foster’s conning of Cherie Blair. But Fleet Street needs to denigrate the Guardian’s campaign to justify its own position on press regulation.
So it also routinely states that the Guardian’s story about hacking Millie Dowler’s phone – her family’s too – was wrong because Surrey police (I can only assume they were the original source) later conceded the NoW might not – they could not prove it either way – have deleted Millie’s messages (an important detail in outraging public opinion in 2011).
But they DID hack the phones and Murdoch, not a sentimental man, did apologise and pay out millions to the distraught Dowlers. Why does this matter? Because the press regulation battle may have gone quiet in the runup to the election, but it is not over.Sir Alan Moses, a respected ex-judge, chairs the media’s own beefed-up regulator, but is unlikely to put up with the kind of insider manipulation which characterised the old regime.
We’ll see, but if the press wants doctors, hospitals and everyone else to have better independent regulation (greater transparency of private interests of judges too, it now seems) then everyone else is entitled to ask “ you too?”