"It remains... that senior people in the power elite in this country are frightened of Rupert Murdoch"

Speaking at Hacked Off’s 8th Annual Leveson Lecture event:

  • “No evidence” IPSO has raised standards – ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger

  • “Senior people in the power elite in this country are frightened of Rupert Murdoch” – investigative journalist Nick Davies

  • “Those distortions exposed during phone hacking scandal, they are still around. And journalism in this country is a massive power block which is still not being scrutinised” – Byline Times editor Hardeep Matharu

  • “We’re still seeing ordinary people appearing in newspapers and having their lives destroyed” – Prof. Paul Wragg

  • “Large swathes of the independent media have now signed up [to independent regulation]” – Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, IMPRESS

Watch now: Leveson Lecture 2021

Investigative journalist Nick Davies has always maintained that it wasn’t a story simply about phone hacking, it was really a story about the destructive reach of press power.

Addressing the panel, Davies said,

What lies behind the criminality is ruthlessness, and it starts at the top with people like Rupert Murdoch.

He’s a pathological greedy man, obsessed with making money.  And he passes that down to the editors and reporters, and that ruthlessness is infectious – it’s in front of that background that people start cutting corners.

Since the hacking scandal, most newspapers have joined “IPSO” – a complaints-handler which calls itself independent but is in fact controlled by the press.

Asked what he believes has since been achieved in breaking the hacking story, Davies said,

I thought we’d get a decent press regulator. So when people ask me what did we achieve [from breaking the phone hacking story] – nothing significant.

So is abuse of press power something we should still be worried about today?

Nick thinks so, commenting,

The basic problem, that the senior people in the power elite in this country are frightened of Rupert Murdoch, remains.

To me the worst form of abuse of power isn’t criminality or the privacy invasions or ethics.  For me, the core abuse is that we haven’t actually stopped them distorting the truth day after day.

The man responsible for publishing the story was former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

Alan was asked about the motivations behind his decision to publish, ten years ago.

Rusbridger explained how he believed that the media is an “underreported story” in this country.

He said,

It seems to me that, as journalists, we can’t have it both ways. We need to acknowledge we have considerable power and that’s why we like being journalists as we want to influence things, or we say we have no influence.

If you think that you have influence, then any sort of power needs to be examined.

Rusbridger added,

10 years ago lots of newspapers had a media correspondent and it was considered something you should look at.  But I knew also that there was extreme push-back from proprietors and editors who, if you published something about them, would threaten you.

Rusbridger believes that there have been some significant changes from publishing the story.

He said,

I’d be amazed if anyone on Fleet Street would be stupid enough to still be using criminal methods.

There was a sea change in terms of privacy. The tech Nick exposed were brilliantly simple ways of finding out what was going on in people’s private lives. But I think that has gone.

However, he admitted that sadly in other areas, things have returned to how they were.

Rusbridger said,

One of the wasted opportunities was that Leveson was interested in the intersection between politics and power.

I think there was a sense that the court of King Rupert, that you couldn’t get elected without his backing, would be swept away. For three or four years it was but I believe that’s returned to normal.

Rusbridger added,

Boris Johnson wants his old mate Charles Moore to run the BBC and Paul Dacre to head up Ofcom.

That sense of interchangeable chumminess between press and power which surfaced through the course of Leveson does go on.

Commenting on newspaper lobbying to terminate the Leveson Inquiry’s second stage, Rusbridger said,

The concerted effort by Fleet Street to kill off Leveson 2 was not a great moment.

On IPSO, the complaints-handler controlled by the press, Rusbridger said,

The S in IPSO is supposed to stand for standards but I’ve seen no evidence that IPSO has done much on standards.

Finally, Rusbridger had this to say on News UK’s charitable attitude to staff incompetence,

Rebekah Brooks was on trial at the Old Bailey and her best defence was: “I didn’t know what was going on in my own company”… She is now back as Chief Executive.  Can you imagine any other company saying, “We’ll have the one who stood trial at the Old Bailey and had no clue what was going on in the company”.

Tamsin Allen is a senior media lawyer, who acted for many of the early hacking claimants.

She said,

One of the ways ordinary people were affected was that one of the techniques that Nick uncovered was that reporters had been hacking phones to listen to the messages of celebrities. But they would then listen to the messages of the ordinary people who had left a message for the celebrity, and all of their messages.

 

Filmmaker Jenny Evans, who was Nick Davies’ researcher on the hacking story, was a key figure in helping to unearth information about the scandal.

She described the difficulties in getting the story broadcast coverage.

We were frustrated that it wasn’t a bigger story and that broadcasters weren’t talking about it.

We never found anyone to go on the record because they were scared.

And the people that ended up talking to me were the people that were bullied … and they really wanted to talk.

Nick Davies also confirmed this, adding,

Over and over again you find good people working in bad institutions.

But there are always people with a conscience [who want to speak].

Jenny added,

I would sit with reporters that would say “yes of course everyone knew about phone hacking, but what about blagging?”

For example, one reporter gave an account of how a newspaper had persuaded the doctor of a very famous actress to hand over her private information.

And once reporters knew the actress had had two abortions there was glee in the newsroom, because they now owned her, she was theirs – and the newspaper would be able to use this to gain more stories.

 

Hardeep Matharu is the editor of the Byline Times, a publisher which scrutinises press wrongdoing and other forms of corruption.

I think those distortions exposed during phone hacking scandal, they are still around and journalism in this country is a massive power block which is still not being scrutinised.

There’s a market and appetite for independent media and Byline was born out of wanting an alternative to “mainstream media”, which is actually “establishment media”.

 

Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, Head of Regulation at IMPRESS, talked about how IMPRESS was formed.

It’s the story of the third sector, of civil society coming together and deciding to organise based on independence and integrity – trying to design a new model going forward.

When we first started as a regulator, it was hard to get titles to sign on as there’s no commercial incentive, but they have voluntarily committed to that because they believe the new model of journalism is about accountability and public interest.

Large swathes of the independent media have now signed up.

 

Finally, we asked Professor Paul Wragg what he thinks about press ethics today.

We still have this culture that newspapers think that anyone who is vaguely well known is public property.

And we’re still seeing ordinary people appearing in newspapers and having their lives destroyed.

There’s still not an effective system to have their complaints redressed. 

We need a regulator that actually has the power and structures that allows them to enforce the code which journalists have written, without meddling that goes on behind the scenes.

There’s a reason we are still talking about Leveson ten years later. We will still be having these conversations in the 2040’s and beyond until someone is prepared to stand up to the press.

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