Leveson Inquiry hears of the ethical rot of Fleet Street

Alex Hern reports on the evidence given on the first day of the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking.

The first two seminars of the Leveson Inquiry were held yesterday, where evidence was heard from a wide variety of players both in and out of the press.

The standout contributor was Richard Peppiatt, who resigned from the Daily Star in March over his refusal, essentially, to make up stories; at the time, in an open letter to Richard Desmond, he wrote:

“Were this the behaviour of an actual person they would be diagnosed schizophrenic and bundled into the nearest white van. But because the mouthpiece is a newspaper, it’s all supposed to be ok.

“Well, here’s some breaking news – it’s far, far worse. When looking for the source of this hypocritical behaviour, I didn’t have to go far.

“You may have heard the phrase ‘the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas’. Well, try this: ‘The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke’s head caved in down an alley in Bradford.'”

Today, he went into greater detail about the flaws of tabloid culture:

“In approximately 900 newspaper bylines I can probably count on fingers and toes the times I felt I was genuinely telling the truth, yet only a similar number could be classed as outright lies.

“This is because as much as the skill of a journalist today is about finding facts, it is also, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, about knowing what facts to ignore. The job is about making the facts fit the story, because the story is almost pre-defined.

“As much as I resigned from the Daily Star because I’d come to believe it was Islamophobic, my conscience was troubled by another, perhaps more sinister, realisation; their hate mongering wasn’t even genuine. It was a crude, morally deplorable play on the politics of fear in the pursuit of profit. They may be the worst offenders, but they are far from alone.

“Beyond the headline grabbing revelations of phone hacking, this is the ethical rot that I urge Lord Leveson and the committee to consider, because it undermines real journalism, it perverts social debate, it divides communities. It makes victims of The Many, by exploiting both public and journalist, to line the pockets of The Few.”

It is certainly true that the problems of the UK press go far deeper than simply phone hacking.

Even in the last couple of months, we’ve reported on the Spectator’s shockingly innumerate misuse of statistics to further their agenda, the Telegraph’s attempts to create a migration scare story out of nothing, and the Mail’s insertion of totally fictitious “human rights” concerns into a unionism story. This “ethical rot” that Peppiatt talks about is why there was such a call for the Leveson enquiry to expand beyond simply addressing phone-hacking.

Not everyone within Fleet Street recognises the picture that Peppiatt paints, however.

The Guardian reports the comments of Richard Wallace, editor of the Mirror:

He wastes no time putting the conference right about Richard Peppiatt’s account of tabloid journalism. He says it may be a good description of the Daily Star, but it’s certainly not a description of the Mirror – and it would be wrong for the Leveson inquiry to go home believing the Star’s way was everyone’s way. “I completely reject that [Peppiatt’s] view,” he says.

“There’s been great pressures. The last 15 years has been about disruption as technology changes our industry, that has been a big pressure on our industry. The main pressure is managing your business … but maintaining the integrity of your newspaper.”

“We have rumbustious press, we have the highest circulation in the world,” Wallace says, and that is because readers are getting views and news.

When you read the Mirror you know where we are coming from – ditto with the Sun and the Daily Mail.

He says it would be wrong to characterise readers as stupid or easily led. “The readers are bright and intelligent people. If they are paying the Daily Star they are not buying it as a paper of record.”

Wallace’s predecessor, Roy Greenslade, argued that the truth lay somewhere between the two points of view:

“The first thing to grasp is the culture in a popular newspaper is different, closer to the kind of thing you heard from Richard Peppiatt, closer to the kind of thing Phil Hall said.

“Tabloid newspapers works on a very rigid hierarchy. What the editor wants he gets.

“There is no doubt the editor is the creature of the proprietor. No editor will tell you that of course because it’s an unspoken agreement when you are serving as an editor.

“While I agree that the great splash or scoop doesn’t move many copies, it is still the case of intense competition, competition that you must be first and you must be fast these days. Pressures now more intense, you don’t know if you exclusive is going to be tweeted before you put it up.

“The other thing is we have become much more hooked on celebrities, that the stories should be told through celebrities… the story that is worst about them, or puts them in the worst possible light is the best seller.

“The focus on celebrities and the fact that celebrities try to stop it is the reason for phone-hacking. He said it was just a logical step beyond old pressures on journalists, for instance, to get ex-directory telephone numbers.”

With the scope of what the enquiry is covering, it is sure to take a very long time to report; nonetheless, with contributors like Hugh Grant, Mark Oaten and JK Rowling lined up as core participants, it promises to remain interesting throughout.

See also:

Hugh Grant, Ed Miliband and Unite join to bury the Digger for goodAlex Hern, September 27th 2011

The Daily Mail’s poisonous lies must be fought by all trade unionistsRick Coyle, September 23rd 2011

How to create a Telegraph migration scare storyMatt Cavanagh, September 9th 2011

How the disabled took all the jobsDeclan Gaffney, September 1st 2011

Express and Mail fail the migration stats testSunder Katwala, August 26th 2011

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