Tabloid hacks and Trojan horses

*From Media Standards Trust

The irony appeared to be lost on many of those in the room. As editor after editor at the Leveson Inquiry seminar lined up to say that the dark arts practiced at the News of the World would never happen in their newsroom, Sky News was reporting allegations from a former Trinity Mirror reporter that phone hacking was rife at The People.

David Brown, an ex-Trinity Mirror journalist, tried to take Trinity Mirror to court for unfair dismissal in 2007. In preparation for the case he drafted a legal statement in which he alleged journalists at The People regularly hacked people’s phones. Brown cited specific occasions and individuals whose phones he claimed had been hacked. He even alleged that, following the investigation by the Information Commissioner, a senior executive told him and fellow employees that, if they were asked about phone hacking or blagging, they should deny it. Trinity Mirror has rejected Brown’s allegations.

The case never made it to court. Trinity Mirror made an out of court settlement that included, as such settlements often do, a confidentiality agreement.

Yet, at the Leveson Inquiry seminars yesterday, editors stuck closely to the ‘one rogue newspaper’ line.

Indeed some went even further. Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of The Sun, far from apologising for the behaviour of his colleagues at News International, attacked the Inquiry itself for persecuting the tabloids. It was the classic tabloid tactic. When accused of anything do not go on the defence, go on the attack. Attack your critics. Attack the evidence. Attack the judges. And that is exactly what Kavanagh did.

First he went for the idea of the ‘public interest’. Any distinction between the public interest and what interests the public was, Kavanagh said, ‘subjective’. ‘All news should’, he went on, ‘… be judged on the public’s all-encompassing right to know’. Anything deemed not in the public interest was, Kavanagh asserted, censorship. He conceded there were certain exceptions in the public’s all encompassing right-to-know, specifically ‘the identity of children or incitement to hatred’. But virtually everything else was fair game.

In Kavanagh’s world almost everything should be possible to record and publish. The assumption should be that news organisations are free to do what they like with only specific and carefully defined exceptions. We should all, he says, ‘have access to the information available to assess the character of our national figures’. National figures? Who does this include? Kavanagh cites politicians and footballers, the latter because they accept ‘our cash for, say, personalised football shirts’. But where does the line stop? In the case of phone hacking, national figures seems to have included anyone ever caught in the public eye, even kidnap and murder victims.

Kavanagh talks about a ‘hint of disdain’ in judges’ attitude towards tabloids. No such hints in Kavanagh’s speech. He was quite willing to be openly disdainful towards the judiciary, whom he called ‘unelected, unaccountable and in some cases unqualified’. He was happy to criticise the Conservatives for not yet replacing the Human Rights Act. He was keen to heap disdain on ‘unaccountable and unknown non-British officials in Strasbourg’. And he made a full frontal attack on the Leveson Inquiry itself, which he believed was a ‘Trojan horse with an [anti-tabloid] agenda’.

The attacks were aggressive and provocative. They were also riven with mistakes and contradictions.

The judges’ decisions in privacy cases were, Kavanagh said, ‘arbitrary’. Yet anyone who has read those decisions – such as that of Judge Nichols on the Rio Ferdinand v MGN case last week – will know full well they are far from arbitrary. The considerations are laid out in great detail, over 107 paragraphs in the Ferdinand case. By all means disagree with the judges’ decisions but to call them arbitrary is simply untrue.

‘We [The Sun] do make mistakes’, Kavanagh conceded, but ‘I can testify we do everything possible – and sometimes perhaps too much – to avoid them. When we get it wrong, we apologise as quickly as possible’. As quickly as possible? The Sun has no regular corrections space in its paper, nor does it have a readers’ editor, so it does not have the means or the space to correct quickly. Neither does it rush to apologise. In October 2009 it accused Parameswaran Subramanyam, a Sri Lankan hunger striker in Parliament Square, of covertly breaking his hunger strike. It took legal action and nine months for The Sun to admit it had no evidence for its story and apologise.

Kavanagh complained that press freedom was being ‘deliberately and systematically eroded’. Even the doors opened by recent legislation, he said, like the Freedom of Information act, were ‘being slammed shut by politicians and others who know how to get round it’. ‘Much government business’, Kavanagh asserted, ‘is now conducted not on traceable paper but through email and mobile phone calls, on the hoof’.

How would Kavanagh know that such government business is conducted through email, ‘on the hoof’? Could it have been by reading the Financial Times’ recent investigation into the alleged misuse of private emails by the Department for Education? Then perhaps Kavanagh could explain why not only did The Sun not follow up that investigation, it did not even report its findings.

In his paean to press freedom and call for public accountability Kavanagh also failed to mention a rather significant lapse by The Sun over the last two years. The Sun, though free to investigate and report on phone hacking, failed to do so. In the 18 months after The Guardian’s July 2009 revelations that phone hacking went beyond one rogue reporter, The Sun barely touched the story, even when it led to the resignation of the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications. On the day after The Guardian newspaper led with the story of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked, The Sun was almost the only national paper which did not lead on phone hacking. Instead, it splashed a ‘Sun Exclusive’ across its front page: ‘IVF Lotto – £20 win-baby game launched’ (see 23:00).

Scrutiny of public figures, of government, of commercial organisations, of celebrities, of pretty much anyone in society is a good thing in Kavanagh’s world. But scrutiny of the press? Even when there is evidence of industrial scale malpractice? No, that is a step too far. That, in Kavanagh’s world, is a witch hunt.

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