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What happened to playing fair?

Standards of press behaviour have plunged and the PCC sees much of
this as ‘inevitable’. Now’s the time for those at the sharp end to revolt

When Arnold Wesker, the playwright, persuaded Sunday Times editor Harold
Evans to allow him to spend a month on the paper in the early 1970s, to watch
the editorial staff at work, he was struck by how much they talked about
journalism – the art and practice of their own profession. Post mortems
would be conducted on how well or badly a story had been pursued; the
ethics of foot-in-the-door reporting or cheque-book journalism were
regularly debated; pub talk revolved around such matters as whether, if ever,
a news story should be paid for, or what justification you needed for secretly
taping an interview. Wesker also – inconveniently for the paper – recorded an
incident when the famous Insight team, which had been working laboriously
on some deeply important investigation, suddenly picked up on a rather
sexier story involving a woman doctor who had refused a teenage girl an
abortion, and descended on her mob-handed to extract the information
needed for a front-page exclusive. The implication was that for all the
well-intentioned talk, at heart the paper was every bit as thuggish in its
approach to journalism as its down-market rivals.

He was wrong about that. I remember those days well – they were a
formative period for me and many other journalists working for The Sunday
Times in its golden period, and they were marked by a running internal
discussion about what we did and how well (or badly) we had done it. The
story of the woman doctor became a minor cause célèbre – the subject of
many earnest discussions afterwards. Long before codes of conduct had been
drawn up and committed to memory (or, too often, ignored), this was how I
and many generations of journalists learnt about the boundaries within
which we were meant to operate. Self-regulation worked, we told ourselves,
because standards of acceptable behaviour were well understood, and editors
accepted the responsibility of ensuring they were maintained.

My own early beginnings had been on the Daily Express – in those days a
broadsheet, and as tough a campaigning paper as any on Fleet Street – and I
learned an early lesson from its editor, Bob Edwards, and one of its reporters,
the late Rita Marshall, who had covered several major murder stories in the
Manchester area. Some time later, I found myself following in her footsteps
when I was assigned the task of interviewing the relatives of murder victims,
in order to bolster one of the Express’s perennial campaigns to bring back
hanging in Britain. I had to knock on doors in an attempt to persuade families
who had no great wish to revive old memories that they might like to lend
their support to the paper’s efforts. Most of those I contacted were unwilling
to talk, but on more than one occasion, to my amazement and relief, no
sooner had I announced I was from the Express, than the door swung open and I
was welcomed in. My passport, it emerged, was Rita, who had originally
covered the story, and had done so with such tact and sympathy that the
people she dealt with remembered her with affection.

Leave them wanting you back

One mother of a murdered girl told me that she and Rita still exchanged
Christmas cards. My news editor, Eddie Laxton, a tough, no-nonsense
character, backed up the Marshall approach. “When you’re doing a story,
remember that there may be another Express reporter following in your wake
one day,” he said. “So, whenever you leave a house, leave them wanting you
back again.”

Later, under Charles Wintour at the London Evening Standard, something
of the same message was reiterated when he summoned his reporting staff in
to a meeting after receiving complaints about a Standard story. In that
famously icy voice of his he ran over the basics of what he expected from his
reporters in terms of their conduct and warned us that any offence would
result in instant dismissal. It was not a lesson to be forgotten. Nor were
editors like Edwards and Wintour an exception. Hugh Cudlipp, editorial
director at the Mirror, John Junor at the Sunday Express, David English at the
Daily Mail, all combined a ferocious appetite for news with a keen awareness
of the constraints under which that news could be extracted. They were not
without their flaws, but at least the flaws were recognised.

In the past 20 years, for all the commissions and reports on how the press
conducts itself, the gradual introduction of judge-made law under the
European Convention on Human Rights, and a string of high-profile libel
cases, there has been a steady deterioration in attitudes within the
newspapers themselves. Young reporters I speak to say that however often
codes of conduct are written down and rehearsed at colleges of journalism,
they are routinely ignored when it comes to landing a story – often with the
encouragement rather than the criticism of editors. So great is the pressure
to bring in the next day’s front-page exclusive, that questions of how it was
obtained, and whether rules were broken or privacy invaded in the course of
researching it, are brushed aside. Indeed, sometimes those rules are stood on
their head, and it is the robustness with which the story was pursued that
becomes the measure of a reporter’s achievement.

I have heard young journalists not only boasting of their success in
acquiring documents under false pretences, or conning their way into private
premises, but receiving the approbation of their editors for doing so. The
distinction, once clear-cut, between those stories where the public interest
was clearly at issue, and those stories which were merely interesting to the
public, has become so muddied as to be meaningless. Although the Press
Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice, governing press behaviour, is
explicit on a range of issues from breach of privacy to deception and
intrusion, it seems often like a hazard to be negotiated rather than a standard
to be achieved. As a consequence, the tally of allegations about the intrusive
behaviour of newspapers continues to rise. The PCC last year investigated
more than 4,000 complaints by members of the public, a rise of nearly a third
over the previous year, and though some of this relates to the wider areas of
the new media the Commission now covers, it is a striking increase. Reading
through the PCC’s annual reports is a depressing experience. The picture
that emerges is of a media that all too often wins its case on a technicality, or
loses it with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders.

A newspaper repeats a story that has already been the subject of a
complaint to the Commission on the grounds that it still believes it to be true
– it is not. A video grab of someone’s bedroom, supplied by the police after a
drug search, identifying the location of their house and thus exposing them
to intrusion or burglary or both, is run by a local paper, despite the fact that
no charges were ever brought. Allegations that a group campaigning on
climate change had smuggled hoax packages into Heathrow and identified
vulnerable points on the perimeter fence turn out to be without any
foundation. A celebrity is “spotted” attending an Alcoholics Anonymous
meeting – wrong again. A man who supplied information to a newspaper
about malpractice at the local mortuary on the understanding that his
identity will be protected is described as an employee; there are only two
employees and he is fired. A man described as being at the centre of a criminal
investigation is neither at the centre of it nor involved at all. A newspaper
agrees to run a letter of correction after an inaccurate story, then simply fails
to run the agreed text, substituting its own version instead. A team of
reporters argues that hanging around outside a celebrity’s house for three
days in order to get a picture of a newborn baby does not constitute
harassment because no one asked them to leave. The misbehaviour of a 15-
year-old is disclosed because, although the law protects the identities of
those under 16, the paper simply waits until he is 16 and then runs the story.

Mere titillation

Small, grubby misdemeanours, mostly, but these are the encounters that
the public is most likely to experience. The PCC, in its jaunty annual report
for 2007, says it is there to criticise the press “when the inevitable mistakes
are made”. Inevitable? Deception, shoddiness and plain deception inevitable?
On the larger flaws of the national media, the PCC is strangely silent, and it is
here that the standards of what passes as acceptable behaviour have become
so grotesquely distorted. A reporter disguises himself as an Arab sheik, not
to expose a billion-dollar fraud but to trick a public figure into compromising
himself. A criminal trial collapses when it emerges that a national newspaper
has paid some of the witnesses due to give evidence. A reporter brings in
story after story based on illegal telephone taps; although he goes to prison,
and the editor resigns, there is no evidence that the newspaper itself was
unhappy about the practice until the police took action. The News of the
World cites public interest in exposing the sexual life of Max Mosley, but finds
its sources compromised and one unwilling to testify. Is this an example of
genuine exposure, or mere titillation?

This routine disregard of the rules that should govern press behaviour
came to a head in the coverage of the Madeleine McCann case, which has now
resulted in a flurry of libel writs. So great was the national interest in the
story, and so hysterical the coverage, that a kind of collective madness took
over. Stories based on no evidence whatsoever, manufactured quotes,
unsourced gossip and a series of guilt-by-association reports masqueraded
day after day as journalism. Perhaps because all this was happening abroad,
but mainly because of ferocious popular tabloid rivalry, all standards of
decency and restraint were cast aside, and the sensitivities of families,
friends and relatives were trampled over in the desperate search for news. Just
at the point where accuracy and responsibility should have been the
governing factors, smash-and-grab coverage of the worst kind took over.

It is perhaps a little early to say whether there will be a major postmortem
on the press treatment of the McCann affair, and whether that will
lead to any improvement in newspaper attitudes. The aftermath of the Max
Mosley case suggests, by contrast, that this is seen as yet further erosion of
press freedom. The British press is curiously immune to the heart-searching
that follows major errors in the U.S. media. When mistakes are made there,
they become national causes célèbres. The names of Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke
and Stephen Glass are still cited as awful examples of newspapers falling prey
to journalistic fabrications. When, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, U.S.
newspapers were seen to have been gullible in accepting the White House’s
version of events, there was an outbreak of agonised post-mortems that
would seem to be inconceivable here.

The press will never be popular. Unearthing inconvenient facts from
those who are seeking to protect their reputations or conceal wrongdoing is
not an activity designed to make friends. However, when innocent citizens
are caught in the crossfire of media investigation, it is the responsibility of
the reporter to remember that the measure of an intrusive inquiry should
not just be the depth of tomorrow’s headline, but the human being on the
receiving end of it. It is, of course, the responsibility of editors and
proprietors to ensure that their newspapers observe the basic rules that
should govern all good journalism. But ultimately, it is the reporter, the
correspondent, the writer of first instance who must decide, by listening to
his or her own conscience, whether they are treating their subjects with
decency and respect rather than cavalier disregard for everything except the
next day’s headline. The best way to ensure that is to talk about it – regularly,
unflinchingly and honestly. If there is a revolution in attitudes to be
mounted, then it should, in my view, start from the bottom.

Magnus Linklater

Magnus Linklater is Scotland editor and a columnist of The Times.

Posted by British Journalism Review @ 6.37pm on 1 September, 2008

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