The Daily Mail, Leveson and anonymous witnesses: four kinds of hypocrisy
by Brian Cathcart
The Daily Mail is going to court on Friday to press its case that the Leveson Inquiry should be barred from taking evidence from anonymous witnesses on the grounds that this is a departure from natural justice.
Here are four ways in which the paper is being hypocritical.
Hyprocrisy 1. Imagine this was a public inquiry into gross failures at a leading bank and well-placed witnesses offered to give evidence anonymously because they thought their careers would be damaged if they were named. The bank, however, has objected and demanded that all witnesses be named.
In those circumstances, whose side would the Mail be on? My bet is that it would lambast any bank that behaved in this way. It would accuse it of bullying and intimidation and call on the courts to reject its case out of hand.
Yet when it comes to anonymous whistleblowers in its own industry, the Mail is on the side of the intimidators. (It may be worth recalling that the Mail is an intimidator itself when it chooses: ask anybody it has monstered in its pages.)
Hypocrisy 2. Like almost every organisation in the news business, the Mail itself relies sometimes on anonymous sources.
In public interest journalism these are people who have important information to share but have good reason to fear being identified. In such cases a responsible journalist will often agree not to name them as sources in an article, and sometimes should even be prepared to go to jail rather than breach that anonymity.
No doubt Daily Mail journalists occasionally find themselves in this position and no doubt their editor stands by them in protecting anonymous sources. Now, however, in a case where a legally-constituted public inquiry wants to adopt a similar approach, the paper wants to deny anonymity.
Hypocrisy 3. The Mail does not reserve anonymity in its reporting for public interest cases. It allows its reporters to grant anonymity pretty freely. Think of those “onlookers” who always have a marvellously pithy quote about celebrities photographed by paparazzi in the street (“She’s put on a lot of weight, hasn’t she? Must have been at the pies”). Those onlooker are always anonymous. I wonder why.
More significantly, take the Mail’s coverage of Christopher Jefferies at the time of his arrest a year ago (for a crime he did not commit). It would be wrong to repeat the many libels for which the Mail later apologised in open court and paid damages, but it is safe to say that the great majority of them were anonymous. Many false suggestions about Jefferies’s character and behaviour, some of them presented as quotations and some merely reported, were published without named sources.
Hypocrisy 4. The Mail is claiming that, if anonymous witnesses are allowed to testify before Leveson, the newspaper’s rights under the Human Rights Act would be breached. That right, the Daily Mail is using the Human Rights Act. Does Richard Littlejohn know?
The Mail complaining about anonymity is like a pornographer complaining about decency. It should be laughed out of court. But it is worse than that, because it is also intimidation. Who can doubt that the Mail’s real motivation here is to deter people who fear the paper’s huge power to destroy reputations from telling Leveson what they know?