LONDON (Reuters) – Fleet Street’s finest jostled furiously at the start on Thursday of a government inquiry, trying to grab public attention with tales of shock and horror.
But this time about their own industry.
Prime Minister David Cameron has asked a judge, Lord Brian Leveson, to hold an inquiry into the oft-feared British press and make recommendations for a new regulatory regime.
This followed allegations that the News of the World, a best-selling newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, had hacked the mobile phones of a string of personalities in the news including a murdered schoolgirl and paid money to the police for stories.
One of Cameron’s predecessors, Tony Blair, famously attacked Britain’s media as a “feral beast tearing people and reputations to bits,” and some contrition was offered at the inquiry’s opening debate.
“We’ve been up to pretty bad behaviour throughout history. It was fun,“ said Roy Greenslade, a former Daily Mirror editor who now lectures on journalism at London’s City University.
But less than an hour into the proceedings, it was Richard Peppiatt, a tously-haired former reporter with one of Britain’s most downmarket papers, the Daily Star, who stole the show with a withering denunciation of tabloid journalism.
In more than 900 stories for British popular papers, he told the debate on the competitive pressures facing journalists: “I can probably count on fingers and toes the number of times I was genuinely telling the truth”.
Peppiatt’s dramatic accusations, which were quickly tweeted over the Internet, shattered the carefully crafted picture of improved press standards painted by previous speaker Phil Hall, who edited the News of the World from1995 to 2000.
“The publish-and-be-damned attitude has long since been confined to the history books of Fleet Street,” Hall said reassuringly, as some participants quietly muttered disbelief.
Peppiatt was having none of it.
Tabloid stories, he said, were ordered up from cowering reporters by bullying editors to fit the newspaper’s preconceived prejudices, regardless of the facts, under an unwritten pact best described as “you tell us what we want to hear and we won’t question too much your sources”.
Editors of Britain’s best-selling newspapers, who fear the Leveson inquiry heralds new press regulation which will cramp their free-wheeling ways, struck back.
Peppiatt’s “florid diatribe” was a “grotesque caricature of the newspaper world”, fumed the former political editor of the top-selling Sun newspaper, Trevor Kavanagh. A lawyer for the Daily Express said the atmosphere described by Peppiatt was “not a newsroom culture I recognise”.
Earlier, Kavanagh admitted the popular press occasionally erred but added: “You should see the stories we don’t print.”
In a dramatic clash between editors that appeared to reinforce concerns about tabloid standards, Greenslade challenged former News of the World editor Hall to tell the inquiry why Rupert Murdoch had sacked him from the paper.
“Maybe Roy can tell us first how he fixed the spot-the-ball competition when he edited the Daily Mirror,” retorted Hall, to gasps from the audience.
“It is an episode of journalism I feel absolutely terribly sorry about… mea culpa, mea culpa,” bemoaned Greenslade, admitting the lapse which critics said made it impossible for anyone to win the 1 million pound prize on offer.
The debate touched repeatedly on Fleet Street’s growing obsession with the private lives of celebrities, ranging from the late Princess Diana to adulterous footballers. The trend is blamed by some press observers for a decline in standards but seen by some editors as a good way to boost sales.
“When Michael Jackson died, the Sun’s circulation went up by 326,000 copies in one day,” said Sun editor Dominic Mohan, who is the paper’s former show business reporter. “There is a public appetite for celebrity journalism.”
The noisy debate over tabloid ethics almost drowned out some of the more sober voices calling for serious debate on the risks to press freedom posed by over-intrusive regulation or the hard financial numbers showing newspapers are a fast-dying industry.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of Britain’s leading liberal daily newspaper The Guardian, made an eloquent plea in a speech laden with references to great political thinkers of the past like Locke and Wilkes for Britain’s rulers not to forget free speech.
“A free press is part of a larger right of free expression,” said Rusbridger, whose newspaper exposed the phone-hacking scandal, “- something to be jealously preserved and guarded, regardless of the abuses of those freedoms by, or on behalf of, a small number of people calling themselves journalists.”
Veteran tabloid types, who grew up on Fleet Street mantras such as “It’s never wrong for long” or “This story is too good to check” muttered that all the fuss over tabloids was not new.
Try the website gentlemenranters.com, one speaker suggested, and you will see that not much has changed since the 1950s.
The site features tales from the hard-drinking past of the British newspaper trade, including a tale of one photographer who died – shock horror – from a fall while going into a pub.