As the evidence poured out in a torrent, it dawned on me that some very senior journalists have been lured into a trap. Lord Leveson may have constructed it inadvertently. More likely, it was a cold, calculated act to corner Fleet Street’s biggest beasts, lock them in a cage and then poke them with a sharp stick until they go mad.
The trap was so obvious, no saw it, and now it is too late.
These thoughts ran through my head as I sat listening to the witnesses streaming through the Royal Courts of Justice in the second week of the Leveson inquiry into press standards.
Their testimony was overwhelming. Only a fraction of it could be adequately covered in the newspapers and on TV. At both macro and micro level it shamed Fleet Street, and we can expect lots more of the same, day after day, until mid-January, by which time the tabloids might well be having a nervous breakdown.
I cannot read Lord Leveson’s mind but it is difficult to believe his inquiry is not already accepting there is more than a prima facie case of journalistic corruption and debasement.
One month ago he seemed such a kindly uncle when he sent out invitations to the press to participate in ‘seminars’, saying: ‘Come along, tell me what you think.’
It was flattering to be on his list and so, in their self-important ways, various Fleet Street legends puffed out their chests, stepped up on stage and told him how great they were. They spouted freely about the goodness embodied in the Press Complaints Commission and preached the virtues of our current system of self-regulation.
From the side of the hall, Leveson watched and listened, as a cat might watch a mouse. He sat motionless, silent and poised. He did not contribute. He made no remarks, no comments, expressed no opinion, although some say he occasionally purred.
He let others do the talking.
It was a lawyer’s trick.
Here’s some rope, old bean. Have you enough to hang yourself? Here’s a pot of Dulux. Bet you can’t paint yourself into a corner. Ooh, you can. What a clever boy!
At lunchtime, over M&S sandwiches, everyone nattered as if at an embarrassingly dull party. Well, the party is over.
This week he started called the victims, those who found themselves in the palm of a berserk giant.
When Bob and Sally Dowler began to speak, how Paul Dacre must have wished he could eat his words.
Every headline more or less read the same with pictures of Mrs Dowler, hand clasping her brow, describing the false hope that was raised by someone hacking into the phone of her missing daughter Milly, later found murdered.
‘I rang her phone, Bob. I said, ‘She’s picked up her voicemail. She’s alive.’
This was a decent mother and her equally decent husband.
But it wasn’t just the Dowlers. It was witness after witness - headliners like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Max Mosley, J K Rowling and Sienna Miller - but lawyers, agents, a footballer and others. Kate and Gerry McCann were devastating. Brick by brick, the reputation of Fleet Street was being dismantled.
As I listened I found myself recalling Dacre saying older journalists had been ‘outrageous’ in the old days and loftily, authoritatively informing the judge: 'The Press Comlaints Commission has changed the very culture of Fleet Street.'
Yes, I kept thinking, but in which direction?
How eagerly Dacre and other notables - Roy Greenslade and Bob Satchwell in particular - took the bait and fell into the Leveson trap. They have made themselves hostages to fortune, as they will discover when they too give evidence.
Leveson speaks softly and carries a whacking great club. The big club is Robert Jay, QC, the inquiry’s counsel and to describe him as forensic is like saying CSI is a shambles. There is not enough wool in New Zealand to pull over his eyes.
With the Steven Lawrence trial taking place at the Old Bailey, this was a significant week for Paul Dacre, as for other journalists. But that hearing was overshadowed by Leveson. Yes, Dacre is a great editor - some say the greatest - but that will count for nothing here. What counts here is that he has been the most prominent advocate of self-regulation through the PCC.
If the judge finds the PCC has failed as a regulator (rather than as a mediator) as looks highly likely, then someone will have to carry the can. The PCC chairman, Lady Buscombe, was the first futile sacrifice some time ago.
But the big beast is Dacre. I can’t help but feel that a degree of humility might be more usefully and frequently deployed instead of coming out fighting.
Nothing can take away from his journalism. For that he will always be a revered, if controversial, figure. But he may yet face his darkest hour.
Forgive me if I do not give a shedload of evidence in detail. It don’t wish to duplicate what is available elsewhere. I also accept that up to now we are hearing only from the ‘victims’, and so it is one-sided. But the ship is holed below the waterline.
One witness, Graham Shear, summed up what he experienced as a solicitor constantly having to firefight false stories on behalf of celebrity clients.
He said: ‘The press made a conscious calculation regarding the cost of stories and the risks. To claim to be exposing hypocrisy in others while they themselves were acting unlawfully was the ultimate hypocrisy.
‘They were almost untouchable, at a fever pitch of trying to produce stories. They lost their moral compass and it became systematic to push the boundaries. They were untouchable and could do almost anything.’
As I explained in Ranters last week I have set up a site dedicated to this media scandal but, like much better resourced outlets, I am overwhelmed and failing miserably to fulfill my mission.
I do believe that the inquiry should be fully reported - in a Leveson Made Easier sort of way - but even The Guardian and Independent have a limit on how much space, and staff, they can devote to it. Good stories are being buried alive under even better stories. Eighty per cent are not seeing the light of day.
Hugh Grant’s evidence - even when subbed down - was still 9000 words; I subbed Robert Jay’s opening address to a mere 22,000 words. Yes, twenty-two thousand. But they were all very pertinent.
Although this is too much for newsprint, it can be easily accommodated in our brave, new online world.
I wonder if some Ranters readers - perhaps, like myself, self-diagnosed with OCD - might be happy to work with me on this project which, with various legal proceedings possible, may last for two years or more.
The evidence is streamed live and available as transcripts at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/
The raw transcripts are unpublishable without editing. I need some skilled hands to knock them into shape, with subheads, rather as I did imperfectly here - http://johndalejournalist.co.uk/qcs-opening-address-in-full-clarified.php
You don’t have to leave your computer and you are welcome to improve on my rough model.
Other Ranters might like to help me cover the wider story in person, with supplementary interviews, revelations, speculations and investigations. We are reporting on the reporters, and their editors and publishers, and Ranters know the field. Email me at email@example.com.
It won’t complicate your income tax return. Your remuneration will be the same as mine. A fat zero.