VICTORY in the battle over standards of reporting and ethics in the UK’s media may at last be in sight following widespread public anger over the phone hacking scandal allegedly operated by titles in Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire, the Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom heard (writes Chris Youett).
The Campaign’s annual meeting on July 16 was told that Rupert Murdoch’s public apology to the nation and his personal apology to the family of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler shewed that everything the campaign had been fighting for during the past 25 years was being vindicated.
This included prompt apology and making of amends when the media had got it wrong. MP John McDonnell (Lab, Hays & Harlington) is Secretary of the NUJ Group of MPs. He pointed out that the recent departure of New International’s Chief Executive Les Hinton shewed how important it was for evidence to be given under oath.
Mr McDonnell added: “Mr Hinton’s recent statements on media ethics were in direct contradiction of what he said on oath in 2006. So he was left with little choice but to go.
“As the old Irish saying goes: ‘Our time has come’. This is a Christine Keeler moment. The Establishment has never been less trusted. The setting up of a Commission of Enquiry is the standard Establishment cop-out. They will keep it long and make minor amendments when it has all gone quiet.
There will be little in it over relations between the police and Fleet Street, ethics or media ownership. The next six months will be key.
“The enquiry’s scope will be narrowed down and the Campaign needs to decide whether it should set up a parallel inquiry. We can’t allow monopoly/ oligarchy ownership any more. We also need to re-open the BBC licence fee debate. Gordon Brown said that Murdoch tainted the debate.
“When, 12 months ago, we were putting down Early Day Motions (EDMs) expressing our concerns about what was happening in the media, we could not have imagined how the situation would change. We now have a tight window of opportunity that we need to be extremely professional about: how we seize the opportunities presented by organising our research, making our submissions to the enquiry and lobbying for a successful outcome,” Mr McDonnell added.
Professor Brian Cathcart, who is professor of journalism at Kingston University and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, said that he expected the terms of the Leveson Enquiry to be set on Tuesday, July 19 just before the rose for its summer recess.
He added: “I expect that Rupert Murdoch will close down phone tapping complaints with money. If there are any trials, you can expect guilty pleas followed by short sentencing hearings. I have started to speak to lawyers about the inquiry. Lord (Jack) Cunningham and Sir Norman Fowler have been fantastic in their support. We now have over 5,000 names on our petition.
“We need to have the evidence heard on oath so that we can be rigorous with our cross-examinations. The family of murdered school girl Millie Dowler have been supportive. We shouldn’t forget, either, that the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry was only set up after a Police Complaints Authority investigation. This lasted nine months.
“We also need to look at the role of politicians and civil servants. So far party leaders have been open-minded – although I detected that there was some relief when our meetings were over.
“Victims and lawyers of alleged phone hacking have been very good with giving us information. It is not very often that I get five legal opinions for free! Former Formula 1 boss Sir Max Moseley wants the rules to be changed so that there is prior notification of exposes. I don’t support this.
“However, I do believe that everyone should have free legal representation and the inquiry,” Prof Cathcart said.
The annual meeting, held at NUJ HQ in Gray’s Inn Road, WC1, heard concerns over how easy it was to find out whether someone’s phone had been hacked.
Currently anyone writing to Operation Weeting had his or her name fed into the Metropolitan Police’s computer to see whether they were “a person of interest”. By their own admission, the police were only a third of the way through Glen Mulcaire’s notes. There were still the Rees File and the Whitamore File to go through, let alone anything else that subsequent enquiries turn up.
Prof Cathcart admitted that the enquiry would be slow, but it could impose some virtue on the media.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said that he would ensure that the issue of media plurality was on the agenda, even though the proposed Communications Bill is free market based at the expense of choice.
The 2011 NUJ annual conference at Southport, Lancs, heard outgoing General Secretary Jeremy Dear say that history had shewn that, when Parliament relaxed media controls, standards fell and there were more monopolies.
Mr Dear told the June meeting of the NUJ Birmingham & Coventry Branch that this was a battle the union needed to be prepared for – and that we would be up against powerful and well-funded interests
The meeting agreed with James Curran that the Campaign needed to make well-prepared submissions to the Committee stage of the Bill. This should include a TUC angle and discussing the culture of bullying and Wapping. The Campaign’s National Council ought to look at seeking funding from independent bodies such as the Rowntree Trust to deliver this. Being able to present good quality evidence would help to level the playing field.
The meeting also agreed with speakers who said that the British media had made “human rights” a dirty word. Media owners disliked Section 8 of the Human Rights Act as they saw it as a threat to their profits.
There appeared to be a conspiracy of silence over media standards. Editors needed to give evidence on oath so that they can be accountable now and in the future. This was particularly relevant to find out whether they colluded with the police.
Chris Youett concluded by saying that one weapon the Campaign had against the Top 12 media employers was the special “tax arrangements” they all enjoyed. The Campaign should urge the European Commission to investigate as these fiddles were costing the UK between £8 and 15 billion a year in lost taxes. They also represented a subsidy that was clearly against the Treaty of Rome.
The Campaign needed to look at compulsory levies on the media to fund a truly independent media complaints commission.
Hon Treasurer Mike Gosling urged union branches to affiliate & to make donations to keep the Campaign going.
Please make donations to:
Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom,
Vi & Garner Smith House,
23 Orford Road,
Tel: 07729 846 146.