In the public interest? Reflections on the conviction of a Sun journalist

Posted: June 16, 2015 at 3:45 pm

By Jeevan Vipinachandran

The emergence of more evidence on the extent of Phone hacking, the ongoing vilification of vulnerable individuals and recent allegations of illegal payments to police officers (including a counter-terrorism officer) have all done little to rebuild the public’s trust in newspapers. And yet, Lord Justice Leveson has already provided the press with their get out of jail free card. Developed over the course of a year, and in consultation with an exhaustive list of stakeholders, he recommended a model for regulation which would protect the press and also the public. The question therefore remains why the industry has not grasped the opportunity to change their ways or even if, given the existing culture in papers, they are able to?

Operation Elveden, the ongoing investigation into allegations of inappropriate payments to police by journalists, is certainly not the brightest moment in the history of the British press. It is indicative of a deeper underlying problem, of reporters willing to break the law as opposed to merely pushing at the boundaries to get the scoop, without an adequate public interest justification for doing so. What worsens the damage from a public perspective is that some of the reporters are sometimes committing illegal actions for stories on comparatively trivial issues – what the judge at Anthony France’s trial called ‘’obviously salacious subject matter’’. Of course, the officer involved was concerned with UK national security, which makes matters worse. It undermines to some extent not only the honest work of the press but public trust in the national security apparatus, which is going to be problematic as the UK enters close proximity to a major terrorist threat.

The fact that there seems to have been an established procedure for making hidden cash payments to public officials at the Sun, and that this was an established pattern of behaviour points to a defective working culture, which is arguably created by the senior journalists on the paper. It cannot have helped the image of journalism, already under pressure, and will increase calls for the acceleration of reforms. This culture is strongly evident in France’s own testimony, where he said he was never told it was illegal to pay a police officer. The CPS prosecutor’s words on the case: ‘’public interest is a very different thing to what interests the public’’ are indeed apt. An established pattern of behaviour where legal boundaries are crossed routinely by several individuals suggests strongly that there is a cultural issue, and considering that there is very little that can easily influence or bend work culture from outside, this comes from the journalists themselves.

Journalists should not be pariahs. The industry is largely populated by fiercely intelligent ethical professionals who are largely motivated by the rigours of independent investigative journalism. It is the culture inside newspapers that produce the horrible articles and commit egregious breaches of the law, it is not the journalists. Culture cannot be easily externally imposed, but it can be slowly changed in the pursuit of a greater moral imperative. One positive outcome of the Anthony France trial would be if the national media can pick itself up, dust off and move on in a radically different and more moral direction. The time has come for action and real commitment to change.

Jeevan Vipinachandran holds an MSc in politics from LSE. He has worked with the Conservative Party and the Henry Jackson Society on several research projects. He is now an intern at the IMPRESS Project.

He has written this article in a personal capacity.

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9 comments

  1. Christopher Whittle

    Yet another SCUM journalist who craves on sensationalism, fabrication and destroying people’s lives. No doubt from the Kelvin Mackenzie School of Compulsive Lying.

    Well, your mate got found out following the momentous Hillsborough inquests, and then came the groveling apology to the bereaved families and survivors. He had this crazy notion that he was an innocent party in all the smears, lies and cover up. He was GUILTY like many others. In truth, he should be done for perverting the course of justice and neglect in public office. As we all know WE TOLD YOU THEY LIED AND WE PROVED IT.

  2. Rick Jewell

    Who is Roy Stockdill (whoever he is and I confess I’ve never heard of him) to decide what is in the public interest and what is not?) He does seem to be very proud of defining salacious muckspreading as being in the public interest. Another so-called-journalist who thinks that ‘in the public interest’ and what the ‘public are interested in’ are one and the same. Roy seems very proud of his “stories” when they are no more than titillation and gossip. They may have been well written, they may have been well researched, but they do not come very close to being any sort of worthwhile article, just purile nonsense to sell papers for Rup. Not sure how the public are better informed for having read them, same value as over the garden fence gossip.

  3. Shahid Khan

    Who is Roy Stockdill (whoever he is and I confess I’ve never heard of him) to decide what is in the public interest and what is not?

  4. Roy Stockdill

    in the 1980s and ’90s I had a string of front page splashes and exclusives for the News of the World, some of the major ones including…..

    Jim Davidson on how he was a drugs dealer at 19 and a vivid account of an orgy with 12 hookers in a West End Hotel.

    Bob Monkhouse on attending one of Diana Dors’ famous orgies in the room with a two-way mirror in the ceiling and how her husband, a gangster, threatened to slit his eyeballs for having an affair with her.

    Tony Blackburn announcing on the front page that he’d made love to 250 women.

    Barbara Windsor on her affair with Sid James, marriage to gangster Ronnie Knight and her friendship with the Krays.

    Alex Hurricane Higgins on his rumbustious life and marriage.

    Les Dawson on how he began his career playing piano in a Paris brothel.

    Princess Margaret’s affair with Scottish aristocrat Robin Douglas-Home, jazz pianist and society playboy and nephew of Sir Alec, a former prime minister

    Thomas Noguchi, Hollywood’s Coroner to the Stars on his inquiries into the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and other screen icons.

    How did I get these stories? Not by phone-hacking because I wouldn’t have known how, since I didn’t even have a mobile in those days. No, I got them in the good old-fashioned tabloid way, i.e. by paying buckets of Rupert Murdoch’s money for them! As the NotW’s serialisations editor for 10 years, it was my job to trawl literary agents and publishers for celebrity memoirs, then negotiate for the serial rights and outbid rivals. I reckoned that for 10 years I had just about the best job in Fleet Street, not only because I got to wine and dine lots of publishers and agents but to spend lots of Rupert’s money! I suppose it was called “chequebook journalism” in those days but as far as I recall none of the prissy Guardianista Hacked Off brigade (who weren’t around then anyway) ever objected to it. I am sure there are those who will say I was very lucky to have a big chequebook to play with, but that begs the point that I was extremely skilled at finding the properties, building contacts in the publishing industry, getting to know them and getting them to trust me.

    I then used to complete the job by doing the sub-edited adaptations – “book gutting” it was called – myself and, though I say it myself, many said I was the best in the business at this very specialised role. I used to pay big money, well it was big in those days – £150,000 for Jim Davidson’s memoirs, 75 grand for Bob Monkhouse and £100,000 for a Jackie Collins novel for the NotW’s Sunday magazine. I cut the Collins novel down from a quarter of a million words to 15,000 in four parts and I even got a “hero-gram” from the lady herself saying it was the best adaptation of one of her books she’d ever seen.

    I suppose I must have cost Rupert well over a million quid in book serialisations, but I consoled myself with the thought that I was responsible for putting on circulation. But at least I wasn’t responsible for getting the paper shut down, that came long after I’d retired. I had an enormous amount of fun and job satisfaction and got very well paid in salary and expenses into the bargain – something that I suspect few journalists have these days, judging by some of the spiteful, envious, jaundiced comments from the tabloid-haters that I read here. The best days of Fleet Street are, sadly, long gone.

    However, I am still just as appalled as are my old Fleet Street mates by the fiasco of the trials of journalists just for doing their job in the wake of the Leveson and Hacked Off witch hunt. You must be rather sad people if you have nothing better to do than comb the tabloids, looking for things to nitpick about, and then publish learned treatises about them which scarcely anybody will ever read. BTW, I am still waiting for Carol Croft or anyone from Hacked Off to tell me what right they think they have to be the arbiters of what is and is not in the public interest.

  5. Colin Randall

    No points to make, then? How is my reasoned argument self-serving ? Have you actually read anything I’ve written ? If you had, you’d know I was anti hacking, anti (most ) payments and anti pursuit of journalists

  6. Carol Croft

    Two more self-serving ‘comments’ from the card-carrying enemies of Hacked Off.

    • Roy Stockdill

      And what right do you have, Ms Croft, whoever you are (because I’ve never heard of you or anything you’ve ever done, either) to assume that you have some kind of right to decide what is in the public interest for newspapers to publish and what is OK for editors to publish and what isn’t? Do tell us, do, and enlighten us, give us the benefit of your obviously towering intellect.

      And you one of those Lefty Guardianistas who hate the tabloid press because it’s actually very successful? Why not admit it? I’m not holding my breath, though.

  7. Roy Stockdill

    I am with Colin Randall 100 per cent. Who is Jeevan Vipinachandran (whoever he is and I confess I’ve never heard of him) to decide what is in the public interest and what is not? This has always been one of the problems I have had with Hacked Off: i.e. who are they or indeed anyone else to set themselves up as the arbiters, judge and jury as to what is in the public interest? Who has the right to decide what are “comparatively trivial issues” and what is “obviously salacious subject matter”? Judges are not, in my opinion, the best people to decide what ordinary people ought and ought not to be allowed to read in newspapers for the simple reason that their background puts them into a rather special class which has little relationship to the real world outside their courtrooms.

    It seems arrogant and pretentious, indeed snobbishly elitist and supercilious, for anyone to tell ordinary people what they should and should not read in their newspapers. Tabloid editors are surely entitled to offer a two-word response when some pompous, vainglorious left-wing types try to tell them how to edit their papers.

  8. colin randall

    This is the most shallow, selective and one-sided item I have seen on this issue and that actually says a lot.

    ‘It is indicative of a deeper underlying problem, of reporters willing to break the law as opposed to merely pushing at the boundaries to get the scoop, without an adequate public interest justification for doing so. What worsens the damage from a public perspective is that some of the reporters are sometimes committing illegal actions for stories on comparatively trivial issues – what the judge at Anthony France’s trial called ‘’obviously salacious subject matter’’.’

    Why no mention of the stories that were, even on the iudge’ s assessment, very much in the public interest? Where is Jeevan’s analysis of the numerous failed prosecutions on similar facts?

    Why no acknowledgement of France’s junior status or his undoubtedly good character? Or the disgraceful conduct of Murdoch’s group in handing over staff as sacrificial lambs, and sources they should have protected to the end, to the authorities? Maybe Jeevan has another article up his sleeve. He could usefully use http://www.francesalut.com/salut_media/ as source material.