Is the Press Complaints Commission a 'busted flush' (N. Clegg) and 'ineffective' (D. Cameron)? Or has it led to newspapers becoming 'vastly better behaved' (P. Dacre, with some support from R. Greenslade and B. Satchwell)?
From my headline, you might gain the impression that Steven Barnett harbours some misgivings about the behaviour of today's newspapers. You'd be right. He got right to the heart of the question facing the Leveson Inquiry...
Describing contemporary tabloid misdemeanours, Professor Barnett did not mince his words. He said: 'These are not isolated incidents but flagrant, shameless, cynical and persistent acts of calculated bullying. On the receiving end are the real people whose lives are being turned upside down - in many cases traumatised – by reckless, insensitive, and sometimes unlawful journalistic practices within a profession which for too long has believed itself to be beyond accountability, and in many cases above the law. And yet still we hear the denials. There is either a conspiracy of silence or there is gross incompetence. Either way, we have to deal with it.'
Here is his speech in full.
I’m conscious even before I start that many in this room won’t like what I have to say, so let me set the context for these remarks with some relevant personal facts.I have been a paid-up member of the NUJ for nearly 30 years, and I passionately believe in the vital democratic function of journalism and in the principle of free speech.
Under the auspices of the British Council I have taught aspiring and practising journalists from former iron curtain countries who have described – sometimes in harrowing detail – what suppression of truth and fear of speaking out really meant: risking your life to expose electoral fraud or executive corruption or exploitation of power for personal ends. It did not mean having to suppress the salacious details of some B list celebrity’s divorce. I will come back to that distinction.
I’m not a reporter by training, but I have written for most of the British papers and I love our popular press. It’s vibrant, challenging, brash, feisty and at its best can make a major contribution to public knowledge and a more informed democracy. It takes serious journalistic talent to explain and then denounce quantitative easing in 350 words, and I truly admire the writing skills of Kelvin MacKenzie, Kevin Maguire, Trevor Kavanagh et al.
BUT let’s be clear that this debate is not about tabloid versus broadsheet values. There have been a number of attempts, I suspect deliberate, to muddy the waters and turn this into a referendum on the popular press. It isn't.
This is about amoral, corrosive, malicious, and in some cases corrupt newsroom practices - wherever they happen. It's about promoting acceptable standards of journalism - on every newspaper in the country.
It’s about the trauma and the distress which are inflicted by the worst of those practices, whether the victims be ordinary citizens or public figures.
And it’s about how to stop it ever happening again. Let's celebrate the popular but let's not confuse popularity with unethical and unlawful newsroom practices that have no place in a civilised society.
And let's be clear that these practices are happening. Last week, Richard Peppiatt gave us a vivid account of the unsavoury newsroom environment he had left behind – immediately followed by a chorus of denials from those the floor: “Not in My Newsroom.” “Don't Recognise that Description.” “No idea what you're talking about, guv.”
Well, these practices are rife. They are endemic. And the evidence of what’s happening and the consequences for victims is all around us. It's not just Richard. And it's not just the phone hacking of the widows of terrorist victims and the parents of murdered children.
Read the detailed descriptions of the Dark Arts by Nick Davies, who spoke to over a hundred journalists for his book Flat Earth News and who understands how journalism works.
Look at the evidence collected by Operation Motorman and reported by the Information Commissioner in 2006 who detailed the industrial scale on which private information was being unlawfully bought or blagged by private investigators: bank records, medical records, driving records, tax records, benefits records, police records, all up for grabs if the price was right. 305 named journalists and literally thousands of transactions obtained from the office of one – just one – private investigator.
The victims of this systematic thieving were not just the usual roll-call of celebrity names and members of the royal household, but peripheral figures, relations, neighbours, friends and family: the sister of a well known MP’s partner; the mother of a man once linked romantically to a Big Brother contestant; the decorator who had once worked for a lottery winner; the GP who was door-stepped by a Sunday newspaper in the mistaken belief that he had inherited a large sum from a former patient.
Routine larceny of people’s private information for what were clearly in the vast majority of cases no more than fishing expeditions for a bit of juicy gossip.
Or read the words of Sharon Marshall, a journalist who spent ten years reporting for seven different newspapers and wrote in the preface to her wonderfully revealing book just last year: "rest assured, these stories all happened. These Very Bad Things were done. They still are being done. By tabloid journalists, right now".
She also wrote: "....there is a line between what is and what isn't acceptable, and….. I think we often crossed it….. when thousands of stories are churned out each week, it's easy to lose sight of the impact those stories have on the people involved". And there are plenty of those people.
Like Mary-Ellen Field who was Elle MacPherson’s highly capable and high profile accountant – but was fired by MacPherson when she concluded that Mary-Ellen had to be the source of the highly damaging leaks about her private life.
Or Christopher Jefferies, a perfectly ordinary and law-abiding landlord, pilloried by lazy, incompetent journalists who were desperate to paint him as a plausible murderer. Or the McCanns – as if it wasn’t bad enough to have your daughter kidnapped in a foreign country – subjected to a campaign of vilification, innuendo and straightforward lies.
Or, rather more mundanely, the PR consultant Juliet Shaw who innocently responded to a Daily Mail enquiry for interviews with people who had left the city for a life in the country – then found herself being interrogated about her sex life, and ended up the subject of an article which so grotesquely distorted her private and personal life that she became a laughing stock in her own community.
It was an article that broke every rule of decent journalism, but it took this single mother two years of fighting the intimidating tactics of the Mail’s corporate machine before they finally agreed to settle – without the apology that she really craved. So much for family values. And let’s not forget that there are victims of inaccuracy as well as intrusion.
These are not isolated incidents but flagrant, shameless, cynical and persistent acts of calculated bullying. On the receiving end are the real people whose lives are being turned upside down - in many cases traumatised – by reckless, insensitive, and sometimes unlawful journalistic practices within a profession which for too long has believed itself to be beyond accountability, and in many cases above the law.
And yet still we hear the denials. There is either a conspiracy of silence or there is gross incompetence. Either way, we have to deal with it. How? I propose three interlinked approaches.
First, there has to be serious, punitive sanctions for those organisations which break agreed codes of conduct. Not just damages for victims, but serious fines of six and seven figures, paid to a regulator and commensurate with a company’s turnover and circulation. Big enough, in other words, to act as a genuine deterrent against further breaches, and to ensure that codes of conduct are taken seriously and are properly entrenched in newsroom culture.
It works in television. And I defy anyone to argue that our television journalists operate within some Stalinist regime of state censorship.
Second, we have to get serious about regulation. I endorse the view that we don’t want statutory regulation as the first resort. As Richard Thomas said, there is a spectrum of options.
There is no reason why frontline regulation could not be administered by an independent body selected from within the industry, with people who understand the importance of maintaining high professional standards as well as the importance of safeguarding freedom of expression: an active self-regulator of the press but not in thrall to it, which both sides in a dispute can trust and rely on.
But self-regulation on its own won’t work. We’ve tried it – and those who insist we haven’t really tried it have forgotten the promises made to the Calcutt committee over 20 years ago after equally flagrant breaches of ethical standards in the 1980s.
Proprietors and editors prostrated themselves before Calcutt and swore blind that this time it would be different. Yes, they said, we have sinned but please allow us one more chance to get self-regulation right. One final drink, as the minister David Mellor put it, in the last chance saloon. One of those who pleaded for a final chance was Rupert Murdoch. It was probably the second most humble day of his life.
So the press were given their last orders and they have wantonly chucked it all over the pub. We have to make sure that this time, promises for self-improvement are set in stone.
So behind the frontline self-regulator we need a backstop body given powers by Parliament that invests self-regulation with real teeth and creates proper accountability. We have a perfectly good working model with solicitors, who were also dragged reluctantly into the brave new world of accountability: the Solicitors Regulation Authority, an entirely self-regulatory body invested with the power to impose unlimited fines, is backed in law by an independent Legal Services Board.
If you want to give this new system a name, I would call it accountable self-regulation. And frankly if the industry means what it says about reform, it really has nothing to fear from an independent body democratically appointed, which is simply making sure that this time the press delivers its promises.
Some of the new regulator’s powers, backed by law, have already been canvassed this morning: to insist on the right to correction with equal prominence; to carry out proactive and thorough investigations into alleged abuses of professional standards; to levy fines; to appoint an independent ombudsman; and to ensure that no major publisher can just walk away from proper independent scrutiny.
And the third approach would be a public interest test, defined by Parliament, which actually promotes real press freedom – freedom to act as watchdog and hold power to account. It would allow any techniques, perhaps even phone hacking, if they were genuinely designed to root out corruption, expose incompetence or malpractice in public office, or expose hypocrisy by public figures.
But it would exclude those purely salacious stories that gratuitously invade the private lives of public figures for no other reason than that they are in the public eye. In other words, it would explicitly underwrite section 8 of the HRA as applying as much to public figures as ordinary citizens.
The justification should be self-explanatory: why on earth should we be entitled to read about the intimate details of celebrity divorce cases, the misdemeanours of their children, their personal embarrassments or their private sex lives simply because they are high achievers or high earners?
We all love gossip, but we are not entitled to gatecrash the lives of talented and gifted actors, athletes, entrepreneurs, artists, architects, dancers or even politicians just because they excel at what they do. In other words the public interest test would cement in law the principle that public figures are entitled to private lives, and that what they do in their own homes, as long as it doesn’t involve coercion, exploitation or abuse of power, is entirely their own business.
Those who protest that this would chill good journalism have actually got it the wrong way round. These measures would positively liberate good journalism, as well as protecting hundreds of innocent victims from the gross intrusions and distortions that have become almost commonplace. And it would liberate journalists from newsroom practices which the vast majority frankly find abhorrent. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to promote and protect the best of all journalism, whether popular or serious. And if we screw it up this time, it will be gone for good.
Prof Steven Barnett, Professor of Communications, School of Media, Art and Design, University of Westminster, Watford Road, Harrow, Middlesex HA1 3TP
Frank, Fearless, Frequently Flummoxed