Perhaps it was the big build up (who didn’t love Evgeny Lebedev’s Tweet looking forward to Rupert ‘bringing down the Government’?) but the session seemed a little flat, particularly given the firework crackle of son James’s testimony yesterday. That left the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt having to defend himself to MPs this lunchtime and cost his special advisor Adam Smith his job.There is, of course, still the second day of Mr. Murdoch’s evidence to come and this extraordinary story still has plenty of scope for twists and turns to surprise us. So far what began as ‘one rogue reporter’ hacking telephones has grown into a beast that has cost the jobs of senior journalists, like Rebeka Brooks, senior police officers and now a political advisor. I’m not betting yet against a political figure joining that list
What Rupert gave us was more low key, though an equally assured performance. He sought to dismiss suggestions that he and his media empire exercise undue influence over our politicians. He’d liked Tony Blair, thought Gordon Brown was unhinged when he declared war on the Murdoch media but had , he said, never asked a Prime Minister for anything. Then as the astute Robert Jay, Counsel for the Inquiry, pointed out he would never have been so cackhanded as to be that blunt in his approach.
Even though there was nothing to cause immediate fright to any politician, there was nothing in phase one of his testimony that dismissed the sense that there was an unhealthy closeness between our elected representatives and the media – Rupert’s and beyond. We have seen an unsavoury element of political life being peeled like an onion. First, the Daily Telegraph e-mail promising support to David Cameron and pledging not to be just a fairweather friend (The PM may be reflecting on that in the light of some of the paper’s post-Budget coverage); then James Murdoch revealed how many times he had met Mr. Cameron for dinner or breakfast and how things were discussed in passing, and then today Murdoch senior, even as he told us the perception of his influence over politicians irritated him, revealed how he liked meeting political leaders.
It would be naieve to believe that people like Rupert Murdoch don’t expect access to senior political figures but the extent to which it happens will surprise many voters. After the MPs’ expenses scandal none of us expects too much of them, but the idea that they may be scurrying around after media owners and editors for endorsement is at best unedifying and at worst a betrayal of the relationship between us ordinary folk and those we elect to serve us.
There is an important role here for the Lord Justice Leveson. He has to come up with recommendations for the future regulation of the press. Regulations clear and strong enough to prevent – or punish – illegal activity such as ‘phone hacking but which also preserve the ability of journalists to hold public figures to account and expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy. After the evidence of the last few days it is also clear those regulations need to be built on a new, much more mature relationship between the media and our political leaders. We need a strong, independent media free to keep us informed so we can make well-grounded decisions at election times and we need politicians brave enough to move away from the apron strings of nanny press baron to leave us to make those judgements even if they may not like the outcome. Let’s all be grown ups!
His argument was that witnesses at the inquiry had made statements which had gone unchallenged. Tabloid newspapers, he said, had been ‘smeared’ with ‘no right of reply’. Having heard the two hour testimony of the McCanns it was hard not to laugh but there is a more serious point here. Journalists – and as Stenson rightly pointed out only 16 of the NoW’s staff of more than 200 are the subject of the police investigation into hacking – are concerned that when Lord Leveson’s job is done they will face an over-restrictive regulatory regime. That is a legitimate concern but it must not be allowed to cloud the central issue – something has to be done to curb media excesses.
This whole thing was triggered by revelations about ‘phone hacking but it isn’t that activity, which is illegal in any case, that we need to focus on. The law can deal with anyone found guilty of hacking but regulation needs to be tightened to deal with all the other instances in which some newspapers and some of their journalists act in unacceptable ways.
Kate and Gerry McCann gave us an insight into what it’s like being at the centre of a media storm.
Yes, they needed publicity to help in the search for their daughter; yes media attention on Madeleine’s disappearance was legitimate but none of that justifies what followed – the invasion of every aspect of the McCann’s life.
During my ‘media expert’ appearance in ITV Central’s report on the McCanns’ evidence one of the men in a vox pop recorded in their village said the couple had been given more publicity over Maddy’s disappearance than other families in the same position. His view was that they’d been treated pretty fairly. I can’t sympathise with that view anymore than I can spare a tear for those poor old smeared tabloid hacks in Jules Stenson’s view of events.
In his evidence Steve Coogan said he had never entered ‘a Faustian pact’ with the media as some celebrities choose to do. The McCann’s were given no choice about ‘having a relationship’ with the media but they must have felt very much as if they were dealing with the devil.
It was a question to which I hadn’t given much (if any) thought since the paper closed until WM called to set up the interview. That lack of consideration might immediately suggest the NoW’s passing had left me unmoved but on reflection – go on, ask yourself the same question – I was left with the inescapable feeling that without it around something important was missing.
I don’t mean there was a gap next to the Sunday morning marmalade pot, largely because I can’t remember the last time I bought the News of the World (no, not even ‘just for the football’) but on two levels the hole left by its demise has not been filled. First there’s the matter of sales. The Mail on Sunday may have just reported an increase in circulation and the other tabloids – Sunday Mirror, People, and Daily Star on Sunday – may also have seen some benefit in the short term but overall there are fewer people reading Sunday papers. For the missing million – for that’s about what the number is – nothing has replaced the ‘Screws’.
More importantly, I think, is the investigative reporting deficit. I know much of it was tacky – I don’t much care in what language Max Mosley likes his bottom spanked – but it did have a track record of exposing wrongdoing that needed to be exposed. You need look no further than the case of the Pakistani cricketers fixing case to see that. None of this excuses what seems to have been a culture of overstepping the bounds of acceptable behaviour but it does raise an important issue as Lord Leveson sets out on his inquiry into the role of the police and the press in ‘hackgate’.
What he finds and whatever shape the regulation of the press takes in the future it is imperative that nothing is done to further hamper journalists’ legitimate pursuit of stories that are genuinely in the public interest. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about but in The Times today Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, reflects on the decrease in cases in which someone is seeking a privacy order to prevent publication of a story. “Possibly it is because newspapers, post phone hacking, have been rather careful in not engaging in controversial stories,” he says. Of course there are other reasons but we don’t need an over-cautions press. We especially don’t need it when elsewhere today Lord Patten is reported in the Guardian as saying’ the BBC is unable to conduct investigations into some of the most important stories of the day – including phone hacking – if they could be construed as having a political bias.’
I think I might be missing the NoW just a little more today.
Don’t get me wrong. I have some sympathy with an approach that looks for help in deciding the best way to make savings given that savings must be made. It’s just that the timing seems off, to say the least, and in staff relations and PR terms the decision is inexplicable. I am reminded of former Deputy Director General Alan Protheroe, who told a meeting of news editors at one particularly troubled time for the Corporation that while Auntie had always had the ability to shoot herself in the foot her aim was creeping higher!
These days my only connection with the BBC is as a licence payer so it is in that capacity that I’m left wondering why you bring in John Myers after you’ve announced what Delivering Quality First will mean to local output rather than enlisting his experience earlier in the process? To be fair again (old Beeb habits die hard) David Holdsworth, Controller of English Regions and the man at the top of the BBC Local Radio tree, makes the point that unlike other services there is little or no room for overhead cuts in local radio because it has to maintain 40-odd station premises. The upshot of that is that the true impact of the budget cut is greater for staff and output.
On Radio 4’s Feedback, said Controller found himself being questioned by a listener. It cannot have been coincidence that the listener was from Shropshire, where Holdworth’s BBC career began. David spoke with sincerity about how proud he was that the station was highly valued by its audience but there was at this point a chasm between his view of the service and that of the listener. David referred (more than once from memory) to BBC Local Radio’s important journalism. The listener made the point thast the station was about so much more.
Like David I am proud of having been a founding part of that station (and to have made some contribution to others) but I return to the point of my previous blog that the BBC management long ago lost sight of what made its stations special. The standardisation of the last few years opened the way for the cuts now taking place.
I couldn’t help but smile to learn that my former Shropshire colleague is turning to Myers, who was cutting his radio teeth at BBC Carlisle in my early reporting days there. He’s come a long way since then but I know he hasn’t forgotten Lamb Bank – the epitome of local broadcasting – and the listeners’ reaction when it didn’t appear. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that that early lesson might prompt him to urge a loosening of the central straitjacket when he delivers his findings.