Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Love me like you used to do.

WHAT would you do if you could turn back time?

Ban Cher from singing about it, maybe. Right a wrong, say something you never did, stop a loved one dying.

Me, I'd go back to the point where I could find the individuals primarily responsible for causing the phone-hacking scandal (and who I won't name, because their convictions should be water-tight if and when they happen), tie them up in a basement somewhere and explain, before they start, why they should behave better.

I'd point out the hundreds of journalists who lost their jobs for something they'd never done; the thirty thousand or so print journalists in local and national papers fighting to restore reputations all tainted by association; and the fact people are threatening closing time at the Last Chance Saloon.

Perhaps I need to have more things in my life outside work, but I'm not a person who indulges in personal regrets and if I could just persuade those few irks to do different perhaps it would help improve millions of lives rather than just mine.

If they had been more thoughtful, we would never have heard again from Paul McMullan, a man who left Fleet Street in the same year I arrived in it and was regarded as something of an unusual specimen even by the oldest hands with the inkiest souls.

If they had been better, Milly Dowler's family could be angry with Levi Bellfield for killing their daughter, for his defence barrister for dragging their sex lives through a public courtroom, and with Surrey Police which mishandled the murder inquiry from day one, briefed journalists the father was responsible, and failed to investigate the News of the World in 2002 when its staff told officers they had listened to her voicemail.

We could have been spared the sight of Jonathan King being listened to by one of the nation's top judges as though he were a reasonable man instead of a pervert sentenced to seven years after exploiting his celebrity to bugger young boys.

We would not have had to listen to politicians in search of votes furiously demanding an inquiry, then before it's even published a report furiously denouncing it after realising it might suggest something which would cost them votes.

And more importantly than anything else, the 20 to 30 million people who read a newspaper in this country every day would not face the prospect of those newspapers needing to be officially approved in some respect before they're allowed to read them, something which at its unimaginable worst could damage and harm every single person, business, and institution in the country.

But we have had all those things, and there's not much we can do about them now. Campaigners against the Press demand and get personal meetings with the Prime Minister to fight their case, foreign journalists are pointing out the Press in other countries follows our model and any regulation will be seized on by tyrants, and just about everyone gets to shout the odds apart from people like me.

Oh, editors get to write leader columns and columnists get to pontificate. I mean your average foot-soldier - the person who is not management, not an award-winning pet of the boss, just a hack who gets out of bed every day to do something others dislike because they think someone ought to - doesn't get a say.

A normal journalist, whether it's local or national newspapers, has to have a degree of anonymity if they are to do their job properly. They need to sit unobtrusively in council meetings, pubs, car parks, and courtrooms. They need to take note without being noted themselves, and you can't do that if you're on the evening news fending off Steve Coogan.

So it's down to the figureheads to earn their money and do the speaking for all of us, and a few have. There are others who can't be bothered, perhaps because they're happy to take the money and glory of an industry they do not wish to admit being part of, and perhaps because they're so far up their own ivory tower they can't see what it's like for the plebs.

I cannot speak for others: but I'll tell you what I reckon.

I reckon the Leveson Inquiry was a mis-timed bit of theatre which was supposed to look at the culture and ethics of an entire trade but shone a light mainly on the bits which were old, screwy and defunct. I reckon it accepted opinions as fact, didn't ask the right questions and I'm pretty certain several people misled it.

I reckon most of us, journalists and civilians alike, wanted an inquiry which would explain how and why Milly's phone, among thousands of others, was hacked. Personally I'd like to see the journalists who commissioned the work, the person who did the deed, the phone companies which enabled it, the police who failed to investigate it, each hauled up in front of Robert Jay and torn a new one.

That didn't happen, because for the first time I can think of the inquiry was held before the associated court cases. That mis-timing reduced Leveson to looking at everything but the one, glaring mistake which caused such public disgust we got the inquiry in the first place.

The court cases are taking their sweet time, so perhaps this was the quickest way; but it is inarguable that because of the speed at which it was organised we may never get the answers we all want.

Three witnesses from phone companies spoke about a few dozen hacking victims and they've now improved their security. But for how long did they know security was flawed, how come the police say there's thousands of hacking victims, and how much have they been sued for? Private detectives told Leveson they need regulation, and the report Surrey Police is delayed until at least the end of the year and maybe 2014.

Some evidence was honestly given, but nevertheless mistaken. Kate McCann talked about the upsetting experience of being driven through a scrum of photographers outside her home after her daughter Madeleine disappeared. She said they had intentionally tapped on the car windows with their camera lenses, frightening her two other children, to get them to look up and snatch a picture of tear-stained faces.

I don't doubt that was the impression Kate got, but as most photographers are freelance and buy their own kit which costs more than £20,000, they're unlikely to smack a moving car with it.

I've never seen a snapper treat their camera with anything but tender loving care. I've seen scrums where the blokes at the back surge forward and the bloke in front get shoved against a car, and it inevitably leads to a smashed lens and a very angry photographer. Scrums, when you've got police press officers and your own media liaison to keep everyone in line, shouldn't happen. If they did there are more than just the snappers to blame for those tear-stained children.

Charlotte Church spoke about how she came to distrust all her friends, and that stories about her could "not have come from any other area" but phone-hacking.

When she said that I was sitting next to a pal who worked on a different newspaper. We looked at each other, laughed, and shared the names of half a dozen of Charlotte's friends who sold stories to hacks. One even sold a yarn about how she was feeding fake stories to friends to see if they could be trusted. Anyone who did hack her phone was just throwing time and money down the drain.

Ann Diamond said she'd been told to watch out for eavesdropping bugs in bunches of flowers delivered by journalists after the cot death of her son Sebastian in 1991. I'm sure she was told that, but in 1991 the battery pack required to run a listening device for more than ten minutes would have been the size of a house brick. The bunches of flowers were given to express sympathy and try to get a story, not hide something which would have weighed half a stone.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers announced she had decided for herself what public interest was, and the senior police officers who socialised with newspaper executives were not asked about the one thing senior officers generally do, in my experience, which is exploit those links to corrupt the truth.

It was originally reported George Osborne would not be cross-examined. When he did appear he was not asked about his links to a dominatrix which appeared on the front of two newspapers. A prime opportunity to ask a politician about his relationship with the Press and exposure of his private life which were the principle areas Leveson was supposed to be looking at; but for some reason no-one did. Isn't that odd?

They're all minor points perhaps, but when they add up it formed a misrepresentation which, had a journalist been responsible for it, would have called for a clarification at the very least.

A few glitches aside, the inquiry could have had an argument about what it is or is not reasonable to report about celebrity private lives, the report could outline where privacy ends and secrecy begins, it could resolve what to do about the internet, our 13th century libel laws which mean only the rich can protect their reputations and it could define the public interest.

It bet you it won't do any of those things, which is a shame because if it did it could clean up a lot of mess. But that wasn't the aim - the inquiry was always intended to be a quick bloodletting, kicking the Press while soothing the powerful, with a result which doesn't change too much.

And now we've got everyone mouthing off about what that result should be, before we actually know, and without taking notice of a few basic points.

No extra law could make the hacking of Milly Dowler's voicemail more illegal than it already was.

There is no way that a missing girl, whether in Walton-on-Thames or Portugal, would not get blanket media coverage and the sense of intrusion that involves.

Any British couple made suspects in a foreign country or reported on as suspected killers by a foreign Press will see those claims repeated here like the McCanns did, and any man's personal proclivities announced in a public court of law will become public knowledge just as Bob Dowler's were. And there is no law which can make the loss of your daughter any easier to deal with.

More rules would not make the treatment of Chris Jefferies much different. Police wrongly arrested a short, skinny, older man physically incapable of strangling the tall, athletic girl whose killer they were hunting and held him for three days over New Year when there was no other news.

Several papers broke the law in reporting it in such a way as to make him sound guilty, but others still used his picture and details for days which, as Lord McAlpine claims, even if you are proved innocent leads some people to think you were involved anyway. Pictures and names of people arrested in high-profile murder cases and confirmed by the police cannot be made illegal.

Because of this scandal, we already have better corrections, a more careful Press, and more threats against journalists when they displease people, too.

The only thing more rules would change is that people would be too scared to tell journos things their bosses would rather they didn't. Like leaking details of the phone-hacking inquiry, for example, because with more state control we wouldn't have heard any of this.

More rules about what you can't say can only make it harder to tell the truth. Leveson's aim was not supposed to make that more difficult than it already is.

A friend of mine rang today and said: "Honestly, what a waste of time and money. What's it going to change? We're not all phone-hackers. They should nick the bad ones, bang 'em up, and let the rest of us get on with it. How hard can it be?"

And in the absence of a time machine, I can't see a better option. For you or for me.


jelltecks said...

Hi Foxy,

I do read your blogs most days, and find their point of view interesting and enlightening.

However you may be right, it is clear, to me at least, that self-regulation does not work. There will always, at some point, be a story to big to play the rules by.

I have no answer as to what should or should not happen, but either the attitude of the press in where they draw the line in peddling tittle tattle and some serious journalistic endeavour and if and when they bend or break some laws, has to change or face some kind of law or tribunal which decided if the story can go to press.

I no longer take a newspaper as I don't like my news being filtered through an owner's point of view, and most of the red tops are just comics.

We need a press that asks serious questions about our leaders, business, the police and all the other serious stuff, not just who is shagging who and what is going on on X Factor of I'm a Celebrity.

If not the status quo, then what?

Oh, and I know, those stories only get published because its what people buy

Foxy said...

They also only get published because they're the only ones which have the approval of a PR, agent or lawyer. Those serious ones you talk about are firstly rare, secondly there whenever we can get them, and thirdly more likely to be bullied out of being printed altogether. Innit great?

Padsky said...

I can't say I was a great fan of the NOTW or pretty much any tabloid, as I'm not particularly interested in what's in the paper as I tend to get my news information from broadcast / newswires and prefer to read longer analytical pieces that fit my cultural bias in a newspaper.

Fine, I'm a snob, and even though I've always read newspapers from the back, and have a career in PR, I don't want to see the average journalist punished for the commercially driven strategy of a few proprietors and a very small number of potentially criminal journalists.

I've spent a long time in the former soviet space, middle east and Africa and one of the things that I love about my own country is the dynamism and intellectual rigour of our journalists.

I do feel sorry for the average journalist, as PRs are treated the same. Most civillians look on us as either Alistair Campbell or Max Clifford, whereas the average PR just wants to persuade some journalist to write 500 words about a widget survey to keep their client happy.

It is vital for the health of the UK that we do not allow any form of censorship to enter the UK media. it's a slipery slope, and might even start with the best intentions, but I'm sure that's what has been said about every law that restricts individual freedom of expression

Horatio said...

Li fox i am t broody ham!!

Anonymous said...

What frustrates me the most is that, in almost all these cases, what triggered the inquiry/investigation was against the law anyway. What we need is better enforcement of the existing law and perhaps an inquiry as to why the law was not enforced adequately. We don't need new laws - for this or anything else. It seems that this clamour for new law pervades everything we do. It is completely unnecessary and, as a lawyer, it is hard for me to keep up!

Great writing as always.

Autolycus said...

Really, you're worried about a report being written about you and your colleagues that might take the behaviour of a few bad-uns as representative of the whole industry, that might represent a couple of lurid anecdotes as typical behaviour, and whose conclusions might be manipulated by a small group of people towards their own ends?

Well, perhaps it'll give you and your colleagues pause for thought about what you do all day.

Anonymous said...

I think you've gone a bit OTT with this one. I have a lot of respect for journalists - and politicians come to that - but, as with everything else, the small number of people who make the profession look tawdry are the problem - and it is clear that self-regulation is very, very bad at dealing with them. There have been numerous inquiries into press actions and ethics and every time the outcome has been "well, we'll give them one more chance." At some point the buck will stop.

Oh, and "When she said that I was sitting next to a pal who worked on a different newspaper. We looked at each other, laughed, and shared the names of half a dozen of Charlotte's friends who sold stories to hacks" really doesn't reflect well on you and your colleague. It may indeed be true, but it illuminates the problem in the system all too well.

edinburgheye said...

We live in a country with regulated newspapers, Fox. The distinction is, who gets to regulate them.

If a man is very rich, pre-regulation may be applied because - as you rightly note - lawyers may sue. No phone hacking was done to get evidence on Jimmy Savile or Cyril Smith.

For the rest of us, there's the hope of *not* coming to the attention of the tabloid press in a way that will lead them to print outright lies in the certainty that as we cannot hope to employ a libel lawyer and the Press Complaints Commission is toothless, we have no redress.

Indigo said...

"I reckon most of us, journalists and civilians alike, wanted an inquiry which would explain how and why Milly's phone, among thousands of others, was hacked. Personally I'd like to see the journalists who commissioned the work, the person who did the deed, the phone companies which enabled it, the police who failed to investigate it, each hauled up in front of Robert Jay and torn a new one."

Very laudable. Trouble is, the only way to do that turned out to be by setting up an inquiry - i.e. using the legal system - because the newspapers whose money and presses and online outlets enabled it (not the phone companies - the newspapers) regard themselves as above the law. If another industry presented something like the Black/Hunt offering, you guys would slaughter them. And the "few bad apples tarnishing all the good guys" argument is rather disingenuous also. I don't see the newspapers applying that to other industries. I do see that all bankers, all policemen, and all MPs etc. are a bunch of bad bastards who need to be reined in. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Tommy Teacakes said...

I'm with 18:08 Anonymous. You're so wrapped up in this world that unacceptable and unethical behaviour is normalised and laughed about. People I speak to are as horrified by the leering over and bullying of an underage girl/young woman as whether or not her phone was hacked.

You can get angry about the few extreme cases, but the way Associated, NI and many others act as a matter of course is cause for concern. I'm not for press regulation (is Leveson??), but what I can see is certain papers racing each other to the bottom, failing to police themselves and making a mockery of the phrase 'In the public interest'.

Also...did you just blame the phone companies for journos hacking voicemail messages?

The pre-publication Leveson smearing is making it very easy to divide journos into 'who I respect' and 'everyone else'.

Anonymous said...

You say there is no need for any form of new legislation because "No extra law could make the hacking of Milly Dowler's voicemail more illegal than it already was", which may be true. But the fact is that press self regulation meant that they still went ahead and did it.

You point out the celebs that try and defend themselves from the press for their own stupid errors, errors that are only interesting to some of the public because they are in the papers. But you fail to point out those whose lives are ruined because of press feeding frenzies, bad practices and contempt for the idea of doing the right thing.

The press has proved that they can't regulate themselves in the past and have always reverted to the 'gutter press style' when they have been caught in the past. Shouldn't it be time to try something different?

Jay Ramella said...

I found this fair, balanced and full of common sense. Spot on about listening devices the size and weight of house bricks and photographers' relationships with the precious tools of their trade. I would go so far as to say that the Levesen witnesses were led in many instances and the celebrity/professional victim hypocrisy would be breathtaking if it were not so predictable!

Anonymous said...

So what you are saying is that the papers are unable to print any real news? It has been my opinion for a long time that in these times of 24/7 TV/internet news, all 'news'papers can actually report on is hours the old opinions of their owners? They are not even the 'chip wrapping of tomorrow' any more.

If they can't provide any real news, can't regulate themselves or accept outside regulation, are their days numbered?

Tommy Teacakes said...

Jay - don't you think this is a perfect example of explaining away/justifying the minor details while ignoring the various elephants in the room? Whether or not they tapped on the window, there was still a pack of photographers jostling and shouting, scaring Kate McCann and her kids at the most traumatic time in their lives.

Or are they just story-fodder, so f***'em?

Indigo said...

"Publishing and media professional"

Whoda thunk it?

Jay Ramella said...

You can be more specific or original if you like - no extra charge, ha ha - but I suspect you haven't got a clue! Keep safe :)

Tommy Teacakes said...

@Jay I know there's a point and a snappy insult in there somewhere, but I'll be buggered if I can extract meaning from that sentence.

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