Media Scrutiny: Of the Media, by the Media

Roy Greenslade is a shining example of how better media scrutiny of the media could be an effective way of moderating press misbehaviour. His blog is many times more influential than most Press Complaints Commission adjudications. He isn't scared. He knows right from wrong. He is our own Judge Dredd. 

If there is one person Lord Leveson should turn to for inside knowledge of tabloid antics, it is Roy. Or perhaps Roy could become the Press Ombudsman that Paul Dacre has suggested. In a way he's that already, with his mediaguardian blog assessing the evidence, reaching clear judgements and dishing out the public shame - see his this recent item 'Call that an apology! Mail behaving badly to actor Neil Morrissey' -

He doesn't compromise. If only the PCC had shown such commonsense and guts. He's doing the proactive job the PCC is only just starting to talk about. Constant, searching self-examination is as important as actual self-regulation. Although he is a one-man band, Roy should be adopted by Lord Leveson not just as an assessor but as a model for the rebuilding of our broken edifice.

Roy Greenslade is the expert the Leveson Inquiry needs. His involvement would change it's tone, make it feel more down-to-earth and less theoretical. His presence up there with the judge would inspire greater confidence in its processes and eventual findings. In his current roles - professor and forthright blogger - he is a bridge between two worlds.

However even our own Judge Dredd reveals occasional human flaws. At the Leveson seminars, he agreed with Paul Dacre's view - a misrepresentation, in my opinion - of pre-PCC practices. Mr Dacre said: β€˜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.’

I question this. I argue, with evidence - see my article 'Not a Thief' on this website - that the old days are being blackened in order to make the PCC's performance look more effective that it is.

As a result I challenged Roy, Paul Dacre and Bob Satchwell (Society of Editors) to prove their claim that photo theft was 'not uncommon'. I said I'd never seen it in all my years. Neither, according to my researches, had anyone else. Had they? If so, when and where, and what had they done as witness to a criminal act? Anyone report it to the police, as obviously they should have?
While the others kept mum, Roy responded immediately, admitting that he hadn't actually seen it but he had heard of it - not to his usual Judge Dredd evidential standard. This is his article, appealing for witnesses 'to prove John wrong' - what lawyers call a 'fishing exercise', I believe. I add some comments at the foot about his gallery of witnesses. 

Roy Greenslade, 28.10.2010: 
'John Dale has taken issue with me (along with Paul Dacre and Bob Satchwell) for daring to suggest that journalistic ethics in the past were virtually non-existent.

In a gentlemenranters rant, he argues that our views of past reporting sins have been wildly exaggerated. In essence, he accuses us of myth-making.

Older, and departed, journalists "are being slagged off by their younger counterparts" at the Leveson inquiry. He writes:

"The current generation is sacrificing the reputation of their predecessors in order to rescue their own...

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."

Where's the proof that family photos were stolen from the home of the bereaved, that harassment and subterfuge were common, and that people's privacy was regular invaded?

Well, I concede that I've no personal knowledge of picture theft though I recall hearing about it many times in the past. It isn't something the culprits are likely to admit nowadays.

As for the other abuses, I point to the memoirs of Harry Procter, Hugh Cudlipp, Cyril Kersh, Duncan Webb, Gerry Brown and many more - most especially including the more recent book by Sharon Marshall (Tabloid Girl) - plus a variety of contributors to the esteemed gentlemenranters site itself.

These contain anecdotes in which there is no attempt to conceal unethical practices. There may be some boasting. But the picture that emerges is one of cavalier behaviour by reporters in the pursuit of stories.

John seems to believe that there is a Greenslade-Dacre-Satchwell "party line" to "smear our history" as part of a strategy to bolster self-regulation.

For my part at least, I can say that isn't so. I was simply keen to place the current situation in context. Reporting, particularly in newspapers that rely on human interest stories for the majority of their content, has always had its dodgy side.

The editors' code of practice, in existence since 1991, did undoubtedly improve matters in certain areas. But it did not prevent the rise, only in certain papers, of even darker arts - routine subterfuge, covert filming, gross intrusions of privacy, the use of agents provocateur and, of course, phone hacking.

That said, there is much wisdom in John's piece, which deserves to be read in full. And given his long pedigree in the business (including a lengthy spell at the Daily Mail), his unilateral decision to report on the Leveson inquiry is welcome. See his website,, which is dedicated to the inquiry.

Meanwhile, perhaps there are people willing to prove John wrong by going on the record about ancient misbehaviour, including the theft of pictures.'

End of Roy's article

John Dale comments:  You can see responses to Roy's article, and to a similar Press Gazette article, on this website under 'Hacks Fight Slurs'. At the time of writing, most say photo theft is a Fleet Street myth. Of the minority who say it went on, none saw it actually happen. 

Roy summonses witnesses largely from the distant past to help his cause. To bolster the PCC, formed less than 20 years ago, surely they need to come from a period not long before that? I mean, who's next - W. T. Stead? 

Anyway, let me deal with them one by one. 

Harry Procter turned into a drunk and was finished in the early sixties; 

Hugh Cudlipp's active career was over by the early 70s (although the old Mirror did set ethical standards higher than those practised by some of today's tabloids); 

Cyril Kersh - I assume Roy's referring to the old People days and editor Sam Campbell's view that 'truth was dispensible'. Campbell died in 1966; 

Gerry Brown and Sharon Marshall - well, any misdemeanours they describe are probably after the PCC's formation, so actually support my case that it is not the remarkable success they are painting it to be. 

I still think Roy is the expert the Leveson Inquiry needs. As a one-man band, supported by The Guardian, he has shown the effectiveness of media scrutiny of the media. His involvement would change Leveson's tone and give greater confidence in its processes and findings. And maybe his blog will prove to be just a rehearsal for the day he becomes Press Ombudsman.

Frank, Fearless, Frequently Flummoxed

twitter: @JohnDale8