Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Yesterday was my birthday and I spent it watching the day's events at the Leveson Inquiry looking into the hacking affair which brought down the biggest newspaper in Britain and cast a shadow over the rest of the industry.

As a professional journalist, I agree entirely with all that freelance Nick Davies says about the need for some changes but not Govt or state direction of what journalists should or should not do in the quest for the truth.

Davies, who is one of my journalistic heroes, is right when he says that when newspapers brand someone wrongly and defame their character, they should have to print retractions with equal prominence rather than due prominence. This, I believe, would make the media more cautious before launching an attack if they knew that six pages of wrongful coverage would have to be balanced by six pages of putting things right.

The PCC is not adequately doing the job of ensuring regulation when things go wrong and too often looks the other way. But what can be done to regulate a free press without resorting to the tactics of those tin-pot dictator countries that control what information gets out in the public domain and what does not?

I'd certainly trust an ethical journalist like Davies to be at the forefront of any discussion or decision made to ensure rogue journos (or their overbearing editors) stay on the right side of morality in that quest for the truth. But they should never be prevented from finding that truth - especially when holding Govt ministers and powerful people to account.

Nick also spoke of robotic journalists and we smokers know all about them. The ones who don't look too far and stay on safe ground and accept any old press release as Bible Truth without even testing the authority or methods of these so called "experts".

Former News of the World deputy features editor Paul McMullan is also right when he says there is something rather sinister in a free society that jails journalists because of the stories they print.

I also agree that the NotW with its 168 year history should have been sold to an independent proprietor rather than just being shut down by Rupert Murdoch in the hope that he would escape the trouble that was bound to follow.

I bought that last edition in July, for posterity to add to my collection of other old newspapers, but was disappointed that in that long history mostly the trash printed under the editorship of Brooks and Coulson - the "scum of journalism" (in McMullan's words)- was published in that final edition.

Where the NotW went wrong, for me, was in hacking the phones of ordinary people and it was shocking what was done to Milly Dowler's family. I find that impossible to justify "in the public interest" because of the false hope it gave that family. And I don't believe it is the job of journalists to run counter criminal investigations alongside an active police enquiry.

When criminal cases are cold - such as Wearside Jack - such investigations can be justified "in the public interest" even though in some ways the "victim" of this journalistic investigation was an easier target to bag than someone like former defence secretary Jonathan Aitken or state-protected liars and cheats like two shags Prescott.

I also feel that some of the complaints by the many celebrities hacked is rather hollow. They will suck up to newspapers for as much publicity as they can get - as long as it is positive - but they will cry foul when caught out. Playing with the media is playing with fire and as professionals, these celebs should know this.

The hacking affair has left the newspaper industry in an even worse state than it is already. The internet, cost cutting, loss of advertising revenues and community support, have all conspired to ensure that many local newspapers won't be around in five years' time.

When the Leveson Inquiry reports back even those wealthy national papers with huge budgets will be on their knees and part of an industry that will have to work very differently to salvage what's left.

Maybe even humble freelancers like me will be able to make more hits in the press with our honestly gained and human interest stories that always got sidelined or spiked before in favour of the huge payments made to Private Investigators to dig dirt on big names - although we didn't know that at the time.

If this Inquiry brings back truth, ethics, and legitimate targets for investigative journalism without infringing on freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom of the press to scrutinise and expose wrong doing against the public, then it will be worth it.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see how this pans out but what comes across clearly to me is newspapers are dying because they've turned on the vulnerable while protecting the powerful.