When phone hacking was running out of control across newsrooms, it took courage to say no to this and other illegal and unethical practices. At times newspaper floors looked like warring playgrounds. But not everyone could be bullied into submission
THE PHONE HACKING REFUSENIKS
Tabloid reporters who refused to break the law sometimes found themselves being sneered at, derided and accused of being ‘not macho enough’. Despite this, some of them stood their ground, warning their own newsrooms that they were heading towards disaster.
In a few cases they paid a heavy price for being right, finding themselves sidelined and their careers being brought to a premature end.
There are heroes of the press out there, as well as villains, often ‘hot metal’ veterans of old Fleet Street, who believed in getting stories through ‘contacts’, not electronic eavesdropping.
In some offices it took courage to stand firm.
‘People were under huge pressure to commit dodginess,’ one of them told me. ‘That pressure came from people who are now holding down big executive jobs. The line became blurred between acceptably-roguish behaviour and outright wrongdoing and corruption.’
It was the younger reporters who were most vulnerable. For a start, they had no baseline experience on which to gauge unethical practices. And if they ever showed reluctance, they’d quickly be shown the exit.
But some senior reporters - although not all - refused to fall in line.
‘The intense pressure brought down on news editors and reporters by failing companies over the last 20 years caused lots of people to do lots of things they really should not have done,’ says one.
‘I was warning colleagues for years that in the end the house would come crashing down. And with one or two other individuals I was sneered at and derided , considered ‘not macho enough’.’
The full story has yet to be told. It may emerge at Leveson. It may not. Certainly these veterans, often highly respected by most colleagues, ensured their disgust were registered at higher levels.
As bad practice became the default position, newsrooms tended to split into warring factions - those who used illegal methods, and those who refused.
This could erupt in violence. In one incident, two reporters clashed, with one grabbing the other by the throat as they argued about unethical practices.
But despite this resistance, it has still taken several years for even a partial truth to start emerging. Many journalists knew what had been going on yet so few dared speak up outside their own tight-knit organisations.
‘I got through without having to bribe or hack anyone,’ says one of the dissidents. ‘I have nothing to fear from Operation Weeting. However, some of these stories should be told because if we as a community have a serious desire to cleanse this business, Fleet Street's 'hidden shame' needs to be exposed. Truth and reconciliation.’
This article was published in Press Gazette, October 2011.
* Were you a refusenik during this period? If so, contact me