Sir Harry Evans and the corruption of the UK press: Freedom for What?

Sir Harry Evans, a pioneer of investigative journalism and widely considered to be one of the greatest journalists of his generation, died on 23rd of September 2020.  An advocate for Leveson’s system of independently audited press regulation, he was a close supporter of the campaign.

 

Julian Petley, Professor of Journalism at Brunel University London.

 

Among the many encomia to one of the finest journalists that this country has ever produced there is a notable unwillingness to acknowledge that Harry Evans was a trenchant critic of the state of journalism in much of the national press. Less acknowledged still is that he defended many – but by no means all – of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.

 

There’s a parallel here with the way in which many  journalists treated his revelations of how Rupert Murdoch took over and then ran The Times and The Sunday Times in the early eighties.  As Evans explains in his preface to the 2011 edition of his memoir Good Times, Bad Times, when, in 1983, in the first edition of the book, he ‘told of the pressures [from Murdoch] I had resisted … there was some disbelief’ amongst journalists.

 

But as he states:

 

A corporate culture that regards truth as a convenience was bound to prefer a cover-up to candour; in this respect the response to the hacking scandal was instinctive. And but for the Guardian’s revelation about Milly Dowler it might just have worked as it had worked before, given the amply supply of cash and the scarcity of political courage.

 

It was the hacking scandal that triggered Evans’s most forthright criticisms of the standards of journalism in much of the UK national press, and he expressed these with considerable vehemence in the lecture in memory of another great editor, Hugh Cudlipp, which he gave in 2013. Inevitably these were either ignored, glossed over or treated as expressions of ‘disloyalty’ by the papers at which they were primarily aimed, making a tribute to Evans a fitting place to revisit them.

 

Evans recalled that when, in the late 1990s, he argued for a Freedom of Information Act, he was asked: ‘Freedom for what?’ Clearly he meant freedom for serious journalism that performs a public service, but when he gave the lecture, in the long and acrimonious wake of Leveson, much of the press was still raging about the threats to its ‘freedom’ that the Inquiry represented, and highly selectively quoting Milton, Mill, Jefferson, Paine and others in its defence.

 

But now it was Evans’s turn to ask: Freedom for what?

 

Freedom for exposing the records of a mental health therapist? Freedom for the clandestine taping of calls, the toxic seed of hacking yet to be fertilised by technology? Freedom to trespass in hospital wards? Freedom to ridicule a Minister because she has put on weight? Freedom to corrupt the police? Freedom to snoop on children at school? Freedom to blackmail and bribe?

 

And in a direct rebuke to those invoking ‘press freedom’ for ends which Milton et al. had never remotely intended, he pointed out that: ‘Freedom of the press – importantly to inquire as well as to utter in the public interest – is too great a cause, too universal a value to a civilised society, to be cheapened as it is in the current debates’.

 

In the same vein he criticised the ‘cynicism and arrogance’ of much of the press reaction to Leveson, and argued that ‘to portray his careful construct for statutory underpinning as state control is a gross distortion’. This echoed the opening of his  article in the Guardian, 29 November 2012, marking the publication of the Leveson Report: ‘So finally the bogeyman has arrived! A regulated press! Government intervention! Stalinism! Precious liberties won through 300 years of courage and eloquence to be forfeited by a panic about phone-hacking!’. Of course, it was none of these things, and Evans was one of the very few journalists to point out that, if Leveson’s recommendations were enacted, ‘for the first time it would be a legal duty of the government to protect the freedom of the press’. But, there again, Evans was not writing for papers in which it was absolutely de rigueur to condemn Leveson’s proposals as constituting as great a threat to ‘press freedom’ as Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong-un.

 

Although Evans had lived and worked in the US since 1984, he had clearly kept a close eye on the declining standards of journalism in the much of the national press in Britain, and he noted ruefully that ‘long before the hacking scandal and the lies of the cover-up, it was obvious that press respect for private lives had all but vanished’.  Pointing out that many British journalists today ‘commonly confuse the public interest with prurience and public purpose with private profit’, he argued that:

 

The whole culture that fed them was rotten, corrupt, bullying, mean and cynical, inured to the misery caused by their intrusions, contemptuous of ‘do-gooder’ press codes. They betrayed the ideals and principles that have animated generations of journalists – but they felt they were above the law. They were merely detritus of what is now referred to as ‘too cosy’ a relationship between politicians and the press. Cosy? How about corrupt?

 

And this brings us to the heart of the matter – namely the collusion between Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher in 1981, which allowed the former to take over The Times and The Sunday Times in a corrupt deal that should never have been permitted. In an article in the Guardian, 28 April 2015, which is based on the preface to the 2011 edition of Good Times, Bad Times, Evans rightly calls this  ‘the greatest extension of monopoly power in modern press history’ and ‘a concentration of press power that became increasingly arrogant and careless of human dignity’. He then draws an absolutely direct line between the corruption of public life represented by this deal (and, one might add, by other such deals that Murdoch struck with Thatcher and subsequent prime ministers) and the corruption of press standards which followed inexorably in its wake:

 

All the wretches in the subsequent hacking sagas – the predators in the red-tops, the scavengers and sleaze merchants, the blackmailers and bribers, the liars, the bullies, the cowed politicians and the bent coppers – were but the detritus of a collapse of integrity in British journalism and political life. At the root of the cruelties and extortions exposed in the recent criminal trials at the Old Bailey, was Margaret Thatcher’s reckless engorgement of the media power of  [Rupert Murdoch]. The simple genesis of the hacking outrages is that Murdoch’s News International came to think it was above the law, because it was.

 

One of Evans’s strongest criticisms of Leveson is that he failed to take anything like sufficient note of the matter of press ownership. And in spite of the fact that he himself presented Leveson with a great deal of evidence about Murdoch (all of which can be found at the excellent Discover Leveson website), he rightly criticises Leveson’s summary of government collusion in the Murdoch takeover as ‘inaccurate and misleading’. However, taken together with his oral evidence to the Inquiry, this represents a sustained critique not simply of Murdoch but of what have now become the habitually corrupt relations between politicians and press owners in Britain. As such, it is a fitting tribute to a truly great journalist, one who saw it as part of the journalist’s job to focus a critical gaze on his own profession, and who had not the slightest truck with the ‘dog doesn’t eat dog’ mantra that has greatly contributed to the flourishing of a type of journalism in much of the British press which has so thoroughly corrupted the ideals of the Fourth Estate.

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Gillian Maherreply
October 4, 2020 at 3:53 pm

Sir Harry has given us an eloquent description and time-line, for the effective dismantling of a once ethical, critical, campaigning free press.
His words will resonate through the rest of this decade until integrity is restored to British journalism – and our news papers are all owned by
British nationals, companies or trusts, paying taxes in this country and accountable to an independent press regulator.

Eddie Dougallreply
October 8, 2020 at 2:36 pm

Not much has changed (anything?) since Leveson, with the major part of the press endorsing the patsy ‘mark-our-own-homework’, self regulating, toothless watch-poodle IPSOS. Harold Evans must be restless in his grave.

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