Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow has accused Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers of targeting public individuals, calling the group “insidious”.
Snow told the Leveson Inquiry today he believed the Mail and Mail on Sunday was “pernicious and, at times, mendacious” when reporting on the private lives of politicians and others in the public eye. He added the newspapers would “probably go after me” for speaking out.
He said: “Somehow this culture sweeps through and is allowed to prevail, irrespective of the quality of the people who try to work there. And it doesn’t happen in broadcasting, and it is not just because we are regulated, it is because ewe don’t see it as any part of our news function.
“Britain is made up mainly by people who live by the law, do their best – politicians, workers, people in the health service – these are the people make this country work and demonising them, exposing them for some frailty, I think that’s very destructive.”
Snow said he believed newspapers sometimes undermined and destroyed people who did not fit in with their interests and said he was “astonished” by allegations that some journalists had paid public officials for information.
In his written statement, the presenter said the relationship between Downing Street, the government, public bodies and the media had become more “stage managed” and called for an independent regulator to replace the PCC.
He said: “The regulator needs to be proactive, it needs to be prepared to say, ‘Oi’ when they see some indiscretion going on, or some foul play… I think it should be about maintaining standards as much as anything else, and integrity, and if, for example, there has been some glaring failure, it would be interesting to know why.
“What is so shameful about being wrong? We are all human beings. Let’s admit it. There is nothing exceptional about an editor. Editors are human beings, they can apologise.”
He told the inquiry setting out recommendations for a new regulator would be a “terrible challenge” but said newspapers were better for regulation.
The inquiry also heard from Mail on Sunday political editor Simon Walters, who said the relationship between News International and the government got “much too close”.
He said the newspaper group had been treated to privileged information when New Labour were in government and claimed Downing Street would pick up the phone and “dictate an article in certain News International journals” in return for support over issues including the Iraq war.
He defended his own contact with politicians, saying it was important to gather information from individuals, including politicians and officials. He said the Mail on Sunday had the balance “about right” when it came to reporting on the private lives of politicians in the paper.
Political journalists and editors also gave evidence today – it is the last week of module three, where Leveson is examining the relationship between the press and politicians.
Peter Riddell, formerly of the Times, said the tension between journalists and politicians was inherent but was dangerous when mutual dependence is too great.
He told the inquiry he had never seen a formal deal between political parties and proprietors but admitted politicians would be well aware of the views of Rupert Murdoch and other newspaper owners.
He added: “The idea of a formal deal I never observed, anyway. What I observed was slightly jarring – it was more social praising rather than anything specific.”
He went on to say editor and proprietors should treat the relationship more professionally and be more distant. He advocated the “Private Eye test” – meaning any contact between politicians and journalists could be easily defended if details were published in the satirical magazine.
On regulation, he added: “It is a competitive environment, young reporters want to get their stories in the paper, it is hard to get political stories in the paper compared with a few years ago, so the story is too good to check. It is that kind of culture, that is why I say it is very much how news operations are run, what political editors do, leading teams, that would make a change rather than specific rules. I am just sceptical about what the rules will actually do.”
Andrew Grice, the political editor of the Independent, said he knew several backbench MPs who were reluctant to become ministers because of the threat of press intrusion into their private lives and those of family members.
He added: “I don’t regard myself as part of some cosy club at Westminster where we all have fun and the media are, so to speak, in it together with the politicians. Our job is to shine a light on some of the decisions that politicians don’t always want to talk about.”
He told the inquiry the industry accepted that things needed to change, following the exposure of unethical and illegal press practice, and said journalists are “ready to embrace those changes”.
Philip Webster, editor of the Times Online and former political editor of the paper, recommended newspapers provide an audit trail to back up the public interest of publishing stories involving subterfuge or other controversial techniques.
He argued that a public interest defence written into law would benefit journalists carrying out legitimate investigations but was challenged by Lord Justice Leveson, who said newspapers would be able to construct defences on paper for “more trivial” exposes.
He told the inquiry he had helped organise News International receptions for politicians and those in the media, often with “high quality champagne and late-night bacon sandwiches” but denied certain individuals had been blacklisted and prevented from attending.