Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

I'll shed no tears at the death of cut-throat journalism Boorish: Kelvin MacKenzie

Our Press is the finest in the world. It has gone a bit wrong, but all that's needed is a few tweaks to sort the whole thing out.

Alternatively, the real fault lies with the Prime Minister, who set up a public inquiry to divert attention from his own bad judgment in hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.

I'm not endorsing any of these arguments, you understand. I'm summarising what I've heard during two days of seminars organised by Lord Justice Leveson before his inquiry gets properly under way.

To give you a flavour of the proceedings, here's former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie: "God help me that free speech comes down to the thought process of a judge who couldn't win when prosecuting counsel against Ken Dodd for tax evasion... It's that bad."

Free speech. Ah, yes. We all believe in that, don't we? I know plenty of journalists who've suffered at the hands of repressive foreign regimes while trying to exercise free expression.

But the outbreak of high-mindedness marks a sensational change in the priorities of the popular press; suddenly everyone is talking about the horrors endured by journalists in Zimbabwe, as though those of us who are the least bit critical of tabloid culture are itching to impose a regulatory regime as oppressive as Robert Mugabe's.

Back on planet Earth, matters look a little different. It's not just that MacKenzie's throwaway remark about free speech comes from a man whose paper had to apologise for its shameful coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. It's that all the impassioned talk about free expression, condemnations of 'criminality' at the News of the World and debates about media regulation have been a diversion from the real story.

Phone-hacking is bad enough in itself, but it's also a symptom of a wider malaise in certain sections of the Press: the existence of a bullying, aggressive newsroom culture that's forgotten that stories are about living, breathing and sometimes vulnerable people.

The phone-hacking scandal shows how easy it has become for unscrupulous reporters to assemble stories at arm's length; some victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World had no idea they were under surveillance until they were approached by officers from the Metropolitan Police.

How extensive this spying operation has turned out to be is illustrated by my own experience: I'm hardly a major public figure, but in May I met two officers from Operation Weeting and was shown photocopies of pages that private investigator Glenn Mulcaire compiled about me and my then-boyfriend as long ago as 2004. The surveillance had begun shortly after a devastating tragedy in my partner's family.

But the scandal goes beyond interception of phone messages. I suspect psychologists would describe what happens in some newsrooms as 'depersonalisation'.

Technology has undoubtedly made it easier to collect personal information from social networking sites where the unwary place trivial, but damaging snippets about themselves. But the result is that popular newspapers are full of caricatures, two-dimensional figures whose own mothers would barely recognise them.

This isn't an argument for state regulation, or licensing of the Press; it's about the need for a change in the values that inform the behaviour of too many reporters and editors.

Listening to Kelvin MacKenzie, I couldn't help thinking that he embodies everything that's wrong with tabloid newsrooms. This is a big ask for Leveson, but I just hope his inquiry can restore some of the compassion and ethics that brought many of us into journalism in the first place.

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