Addressed to Gentlemen Ranters (senior Fleet Street journalists):
Did you ever steal family photos off someone’s mantlepiece while they were blinded by tears? Did you see anyone else do it? I didn’t. Yet, according to some of our marginally younger brethren, we were all at it, not just ducking and diving like dedicated Del Boys, which is tolerable, but actually nicking and lifting like Oxford Street pickpockets, which is certainly not.
I was a reporter. I was not a thief. Neither were my colleagues as far as I know. I resent anyone, however elevated, telling Lord Justice Leveson otherwise.
We were not angels, just as today’s reporters are not angels, but we were probably no worse and - yes, I’ll say it - perhaps better.
I make this point emphatically after attending the seminars being held by Lord Leveson into the culture, practice and ethics of tabloid newspapers, in preparation for the opening of his judicial inquiry.
Editors and publishers, academics and regulators, have been staking their ground. They are delivering speeches, digging in and establishing positions.
As they do so, I am alarmed at the main strategy.
Put simply, it is: blame the old shufflers because they’re too demented to resist - or six feet under.
In front of Lord Leveson, older journalists are being slagged off by their younger counterparts. The current generation is sacrificing the reputation of their predecessors in order to rescue their own.
‘Let me assure you,’ Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail told the judge, ‘the British press is vastly better behaved and disciplined than when I started in newspapers in the seventies. Then much of its behaviour was outrageous.
‘It was not uncommon for reporters to steal photographs from homes. Blatant subterfuge was commonly used. There were no restraints on invasions of privacy. Harassment was the rule rather than the exception. The Press Complaints Commission has changed the very culture of Fleet Street.’
That view was endorsed by Professor Roy Greenslade, ex big shot at the Mirror, Sun and Sunday Times.
‘I didn’t think I’d ever say this - I agree a great deal with what Paul Dacre had to say, particularly regarding the standards he came into in the seventies,’ he declared. ‘There was no Code in those days and so we learnt ethics on the hoof and so there was that kind of scandalous behaviour.’
Then it was the turn of Bob Satchwell, of the Society of Editors. He too repeated what was becoming the party line.
There were 200 people present. I seemed the only person to raise an eyebrow ...‘Vastly better behaved’...‘outrageous’...‘scandalous’.
Assertion had become the received wisdom. Well, sorry to spoil the party.
Now I do not say we were vestal virgins. We were not. But it is too convenient for the current crop of senior journalists to talk up the sins of the past in order to re-frame the failings of the present. The worse they paint pre-PCC days, the more they can claim to credit the PCC with improving things. By smearing our history they seek to show the effectiveness of self-regulation. By shifting blame, they are conjuring up a useful scapegoat, one less argumentative in that it a lot of it occupies the cemetery.
I too want self-regulation to continue. But while sharing their ends, I question their means.
I have been involved with the national press since 1964. Were we really as shoddy as the Italian-cut mohair suits we favoured?
Take photo stealing, which is always the first allegation Mr Dacre raises, the pocketing of photographs of murder or accident victims from the mantlepieces of their bereaved mums/wives/husbands/children. While they sobbed, you nicked the picture. You’d think we were taught it in our 1960s training.
I reported for some of the most competitive outfits - Raymonds of Derby, Hopkinsons of Leeds and Bradford, and the Daily Mail - and I swear I never saw it.
I think back to the very decent men and women who were my colleagues. They would not have done it just as I would not have done it. It was not even necessary. We were skilled in gaining trust - easier then, I think - and when we did the ‘death knock’, we respected our interviewees and in return they respected us because our newspapers were about real people and real lives, not ersatz celebrities, and the readers understood we were doing a job. We’d ask for photos and in nearly all cases they would be fetched and entrusted to our care. Theft would have been redundant.
I repeat, I never saw it happen and I never heard of it actually happening.
Maybe I’m an innocent fool. Perhaps Paul Dacre witnessed it. If so, let him say where and when. And if he did see it, what did he do about it? Turn a blind eye? I offer the same challenge to Roy Greenslade and Bob Satchwell.
Yes, there may have been the odd rogue reporter or photographer but before you casually smear a whole generation, make sure you can prove it.
I await your replies.
And I make a supplementary point: which would be worse - stealing Milly Dowler’s photo or hacking her phone? It’s hard to say. And both are illegal, so equally outside the Code and equally useless in its validation.
Next, Paul Dacre refers to harassment.
I give credit to the PCC for working hard on this. Today’s targets can get the PCC to email newsdesks warning them they could be in breach of the Code. We didn’t have that in the old days. But - and here I reveal trade secrets - it was never really the way editors intended it to be anyway.
In theory we were supposed to be making a nuisance of ourselves outside someone’s front door, hoping they would crack and talk. Individual members of the pack would keep receiving further instructions from their desks to ‘knock again’ or ‘put another offer through the letterbox’.
But these orders - usually counter-productive, frequently stupid - were mediated by the reporters on the ground. Although in theoretical competition, we would transfer our loyalty from the newspaper to our fellow hacks. We would become a team, deceiving our newsdesks in an agreed strategy, covering one another’s backs. We either failed or succeeded together - in the spirit of D’Artagnan, all for one, and one for all.
The newsdesks knew. It enabled them to maintain a fiction of dynamic activity to the editor. The editor knew too. But the Mail wouldn’t leave the scene until the Express left. The Mirror wouldn’t quit while the Sun was present. And so it strung along, entirely without hope or purpose although entirely amicably. We sat in the pub, leaving one person ‘on watch’.
Next, privacy. In his inter-generational slur, Paul Dacre makes no mention of the associated topic of trial by media. Let me rectify that grave omission.
In the old days, we complied with the law of contempt. When police pulled people in for questioning, we published only the basic facts in order not to create prejudice.
Compare that to last Christmas, when an innocent next door neighbour was taken in and asked about the death of Joanna Yeates in Bristol. Mr Dacre’s front page read: ‘Murder police quiz ‘nutty professor’ with a blue rinse.’
Others were much, much worse.
Eight nationals including the Mail later apologised and paid the man damages. Two, the Mirror and the Sun, were heavily fined for contempt.
I search my memory in vain for a pre-PCC case which was worse.
The same goes for the Maddie McCann disappearance. Yes, we dealt with similar cases. But when the facts ran out, so did the copy. We didn’t just make it up wholesale. Again, various newspapers have been forced to pay up and apologise, the Mail amongst them.
As I say, the PCC has worked hard on privacy but I doubt Mr Dacre’s favourable estimation is shared by the Bristol schoolteacher, the McCanns, Colin Stagg (wrongly accused of the Wimbledon Common murder) and various other victims of the post-PCC press,.
And I haven’t even got round to phone-hacking - thousands of cases - and the hiring of private investigators. All right, phone hacking was not possible 20 years ago. But don’t let’s kid ourselves about private detectives. They were largely there to carry out dodgy inquiries at arm’s length, to maintain editorial deniability.
I never hired a private detective.
So I refer again to the vilifying of the old days.
‘Vastly better behaved’...‘outrageous’...‘scandalous’.
I admire Paul Dacre. Some argue that he is the greatest editor of our time. He is also our most forceful advocate for free speech, warts and all. But the leadership he has shown at Derry Street has not always been equalled by that he has shown at the PCC. There is nothing wrong with the Code. The failure has been in its enforcement. But rather than admit this, he blackens the names of those who preceded him.
I look forward to seeing how his argument stands up under cross-examination at Leveson, when he is called to give evidence on oath rather than a mere presentation.
He wants self-regulation. Most journalists do. Yes, in the old days we were tough and extremely competitive. We were imperfect. But we were already practising self-regulation - in our cases personal, not collective. We do not merit being made an inter-generational scapegoat.
And, for Paul’s benefit, I’d like to add this: Old tabloid journalists have human feelings too.
If you agree with me, you can help by signing my government e-petition, marked for the attention of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It states: Older tabloid journalists must not be scapegoated, and their reputations blackened, to exaggerate the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission
Frank, Fearless, Frequently Flummoxed