When the Daily Express big cheeses appear at Leveson this coming week, they should be asked one question in particular: ‘Why do you call it the world’s greatest newspaper?’ 

Make them prove it! 

Their assertion, made daily alongside the front page masthead, goes to the heart of the Express’s credibility. If they can justify it, fine. Maybe there is some committee not on Google which awards it such an accolade at a secret annual ceremony somewhere. 

If they cannot justify it, then it suggests a singularly subjective approach to facts and the truth. In that case, what else might be in doubt? The frequent splashes on soaring house prices and bizarre weather forecasts? Does this demonstrate an attitude which runs right through its journalism, one which undermines their service to readers? It wouldn't be allowed in an advertisement without evidence.

This is one of many points which Robert Jay, QC, and other counsel for the inquiry, will be exploring with editor Hugh Whittow, proprietor Richard Desmond and editorial director Paul Ashford.

Another may be the Express’s divisive attitude towards minorities. There was an interesting example of that last week.

After the long-overdue conviction of the two racist thugs for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Express invited readers’ comments. What some readers sent - and which remained on screen - were the sickest kind of racist ‘jokes’.

In one posting there were were five uses of the N-word - spelt in full - and one 'joke' about Jews and the Holocaust. I won’t give further details here, although I have them.

They were posted at 8:39pm. At 9:05pm the Express website team said they had been alerted about ‘inappropriate’ content, telling a complainant: ‘We take great care in ensuring our site is as good as it can be for our fantastic readers, and will  look into this comment shortly. Thank you once again for being a responsible member of our community.’

At that they must have poured themselves another cup of tea and opened a new packet of ginger nuts because fifty-five minutes later the ‘jokes’ were still up there for all to see, in all their blazing illegality.

When I looked again, next morning, they had disappeared and the Stephen Lawrence comment section had been closed down. I have no doubt that the Express staff despised these 'jokes' as much as the rest of us. 

It raises the matter of how well the website is being managed. Every big news organisation receives deeply offensive postings. Racist 'jokes' should not see the light of day, never mind remain on view once reported. They could also lead to criminal proceedings.

A sort of dress rehearsal for this week’s Leveson appearances was held for Whittow, Desmond and Ashford recently when they appeared before the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions.

The questioning was not as incisive as we have come to expect from Leveson but it set the grounds.

Paul Farrelly, MP, asked: 'Mr Whittow, your newspaper recently settled with Christopher Jefferies (over his mistaken arrest over the Joanna Yeates murder). Did the articles on the basis of which he brought that action contravene the (PCC)Editors’ Code in any way?'

Whittow: 'Of course it was contravened. We made a mistake, we held our hands up, we paid him damages and we apologised in the newspaper.'

Farrelly: 'What action did you then take against all your journalists who strive to be good who have written those articles and the people on the newsdesk involved in those articles? What action did you take against yourself?'

Whittow: 'Of course we had an inquest. We talked to our lawyers. The way the newspaper is produced is a very strict regime. The newsdesk get the story; the reporter reports to the newsdesk. We then always consult a lawyer. We have lawyers on call 24 hours a day. We have five or six in-house lawyers, and we take their advice. On this occasion it slipped through the net. We take considerable care. We are a fast-moving organisation. Newspapers are turned around in eight or 10 hours. Sometimes mistakes are made. That was a serious mistake.'

Farrelly: 'Was anyone reprimanded or disciplined?'

Whittow: 'They were reprimanded internally, yes.'

(A slight pause as all parties considered the implication)

Farrelly: 'You reprimanded yourself presumably?' 

Whittow (struggling with this awkward concept, Lord Grantham face contorting as shown in photo above): 'Yes.'

Farrelly: 'Because it was a pretty big hole. It fell through the same hole as the McCanns, and yet in the McCann case under Peter Hill, nobody resigned and no one was reprimanded. So this was different?'

Whittow: 'We made a mistake. We accepted we made a mistake and we made an apology, but we were by no means the worst offenders. Two or three other newspapers challenged the outcome; we did not put him through any ordeal at all. We just said, “Look, hands up”, which is our policy, and said, “We are very sorry”, and moved on.'

(Another interpretation might be that they were caught bang-to-rights and the decision was commercial rather than humanitarian.) 

Farrelly, turning to Richard Desmond: 'Mr Desmond, when this happens again and again, it is not just a question for editors, is it? It is a question for the proprietors. Because the public will conclude that, if it happens again and again, proprietors are willing to tolerate this in their battle for circulation. In your case, perhaps it is your circulation battle with the Daily Mail.'

Richard Desmond (addressing Whittow, not the committee): 'I do not believe that you were the editor then, Hugh. I hope that answers the question.'

Farrelly: 'Are you taking any action to make sure that this does not happen again?'

Desmond: 'Mr Whittow was not the editor then. I hope you understand that he was not the editor then.'

(Not an answer to the question)

Of course, if this had been any other organisation, the Express and other tabloids would have been screaming for heads to roll, for the public execution of everyone involved. But this is Fleet Street Rules. It’s a parallel universe, as this later exchange revealed. 

Farrelly: 'I was listening to Charlotte Church in front of the Leveson Inquiry, and she quoted one editor, whom I will not name, who said that many journalists expose the misdeeds of the rich, the pompous and the powerful, but editors essentially manage to keep themselves out of the limelight. How do you think that state of affairs reflects on the press, where intrusions into privacy are seen as fair game but the reverse cannot happen?'

Richard Desmond: 'I absolutely agree with you, or her, or whoever said it. It is preposterous, isn’t it?'


Farrelly: 'There are double standards at work...'

Desmond: Very hypocritical, very hypocritical.

That reply is surreal. If he doesn’t like it, why doesn’t he do something about it? Let’s hope Mr Desmond is pursued on this at Leveson. 

My own view is that greater transparency - for all journalists and proprietors - should be enforced by the PCC (or its equivalent) on the lines of the American register, News Transparency. It should be both professional and personal.

Journalists behave badly - sometimes mercilessly so - because they think their friends and families will never find out. They confuse real life with entertainment, losing contact with their own humanity - I have done it myself - and try to ensure no one ever really knows.

Naming and shaming individual hacks - as being demonstrated by the Leveson process right now - is as strong a restraint on unethical conduct as the PCC’s Code of Practice, perhaps more so. You don't want to be named, you don't want to be shamed, you don't want to be the target of those pointing fingers so familiar to you from your own accusatory exercises. Editors are as big a bunch of cowards as everyone else. They want to gun down others from the bushes, not in a fair fight. They can dish it out but they can't take it. Nor can their lackeys.

Journalists were happy enough to name and shame MPs, for instance. They showed it worked splendidly for our legislators. Thanks to this example, we can assume it would work for the fourth estate just as well. 

See also: Shame or Praise at News Transparency at