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Publishing

Shoot Leveson, not the messenger

The hysteria about the press in this country is becoming ridiculous. I was watching the rather good TV show Broadchurch the other night and found it almost (not quite) spoiled by the ludicrous portrayal of both local and national journalists.

Broadchurch seems to be catching the national mood and getting its basic facts horribly wrong. No one applies for the job of ‘junior reporter’ on the Daily Mail because the Mail doesn’t employ junior reporters. Also if you work on a local paper and apply for a new job the last thing you do is advertise the fact and then whine to your boss when you don’t even get an interview.

And the slimy tabloid reporter who wanted to bag a free desk in the office of a local rag? She’d be staying in a decent hotel, with a data-enabled laptop. Yes she might pick the brains of a local lad but pleading for a desk alongside a junior on a town rag? No…

Not that  TV drama is the only place the press get a kicking. We now have a vote in the Commons on Monday which is being portrayed as a showdown that could spell the end of the coalition.

The politics bore me frankly. Nor is this a plea for the public to be nice to hacks. I was a journalist for a large part of my working life, on everything from local papers to national ones like The Times, Independent and Sunday Times. I didn’t expect to be popular. The press isn’t there for that. It exists to tell you want you need to hear, nor what you’d like to. If some of that makes for uncomfortable reading then great… it means newspapers are doing their job.

True, that job shouldn’t involve phone hacking, harassment and intrusion into privacy. But these reprehensible activities are rare. They’re also illegal which is why a growing number of the few hacks who carried them out are now facing prosecution. Get that? There are laws to stop those things already. So why do we need more?

Let me tell you. It’s because a number of people with axes to grind have decided this is the perfect opportunity to stop all that awkward publicity they’d rather the public didn’t get to read. Quite a lot of them are MPs. You know, the people who were so embarrassed when the Telegraph revealed their dubious and on occasion illegal habits when it came to creaming the public purse for expenses.

Would that story have run if Leveson were in place? I don’t know. It involved paying for information, so perhaps not. The phone hacking saga was broken by the Guardian with some splendid investigative reporting that involved getting leaks from people, seemingly police officers among them, who told journalists things they shouldn’t have done.

So would the stories that prompted Leveson have been impossible to print if Leveson’s recommendations had been in print? Very likely. I know it’s become trendy to pillory the press. But think about this for a moment. Is it OK for Wikileaks to release information that, along the way, imperils the lives of some of those it exposes? But wrong for a national newspaper to lift a lid on the Mother of Parliaments and show us that actually there’s a lot that’s rotten beneath the surface? You’d think so in some quarters.

I don’t know about the law. But this isn’t just about lawyers. Mood and climate matter. Newspapers are very conscious of public opinion. It’s part of their job, and one reason why there’s a lot less celeb-chasing and scandal-busting than there used to be. They know the public will kick them for it in sales, as people in Liverpool did when the Sun wrote that scandalous ‘The Truth’ story back in 1989, a gross libel on an entire community for which it’s still paying today.

Self-regulation isn’t perfect. No system is. But it seems to be working, probably too well if I’m honest. Papers are more nervous about printing risky stories than ever. Can you remember the last time Private Eye printed an exclusive? In a way Leveson’s won already.

I’m all for respecting privacy, even that of celebs who seem to want to turn the publicity tap on and off at will and  vet every word written about them (believe me there’s lots that hasn’t been written on that subject too). Page 3 is a monstrous anachronism that ought to be killed today. Phone hacking and paying public servants for private information are wrong, illegal, and deserve to be punished — and that seems to be about to happen.

But to shackle the whole of the press on the basis of the misdeeds of a tiny minority of bad apples, working for just a few tabloid titles?

No.

This isn’t about the press cleaning up their act. They’ve done that already, and the police are sweeping up the rest. It’s about silencing a vital counterbalance to a democracy that is increasingly starting to fail.