Sunday 15 December 2019

The News that wasn't fit to print

The Mail stunt over the Tribune front page shows the press in Ireland has to be on its guard to preserve good journalism, writes Alastair Campbell

I WAS in Dublin when the closure of the Sunday Tribune was announced. On the Sunday of its demise I went to the restaurant of the Merrion Hotel restaurant for breakfast, and was surprised to see a copy of the Tribune waiting for me by the door. I picked it up, settled down to breakfast, and started to read it. It turned out to be a complete con, a four-page wraparound by the Mail on Sunday -- a paper I refuse to allow in the house, on the same grounds that I would not let our dog foul the carpet -- exploiting the demise of another paper. Irish journalists were rightly up in arms.

But nobody should have been surprised. As we have seen from the phone-hacking scandal, some journalists will stop at nothing to get a story. And some newspapers will stop at nothing to get a few more readers. Even now, amid all their crocodile tears about the demise of the News of the World, its rivals will be merrily strategizing to pick up those suddenly left without their favourite Sunday tabloid next week.

I tell the story about the Tribune to remind you, amid the fallout of a scandal which has convulsed the media, the Metropolitan Police and the current occupant of Downing Street, that the newspaper industry has always been a rough, tough place full of buccaneering characters and sharp practices. But something has changed that we get to a situation where someone, anyone, feels justified in hacking the phones of teenage murder victims, families of the victims of terrorist attacks, or families of soldiers killed while fighting for their country. When this was all about the phones of people in showbiz, professional sport and politics -- myself included -- the public may have thought it was wrong because it was illegal, and interesting because there were famous actresses and footballers involved. But they didn't lose sleep about it. The latest revelations became the tipping point in public opinion because people realised this could happen to anyone, and that means them. It happened because with newspapers under enormous pressure from the broadcast media and the internet, the practices have become sharper. The extent of criminal activity at the News of the World has only recently become clear, and has revealed that for some, there are literally no moral boundaries. And once the inquiry announced belatedly by David Cameron begins, I believe it will become equally clear that they were far from being alone in trading in illegal practices and illegally obtained information.

I have been banging on for ages about the news blackout imposed by the press on a report by the Information Commissioner several years ago that exposed the extent of the trade between private detectives, papers and the police -- and which concluded none of the stories examined by the report could claim a public interest justification for the illegality.

It made not a single line anywhere at the time. Only now are people beginning to talk about it and realise the implications. It should surprise nobody to know the Daily Mail was top of the league table, just as the Daily Mail is now leading the charge against the review of the Press Complaints Commission. I don't imagine that anywhere in its coverage will the editor, Paul Dacre, declare his interest as chairman of the committee which presides over the PCC code of ethics. Imagine that an IRA leader had been in charge of the Decommissioning Commission and you get the point.

The News of the World has taken all the hits but ask yourself why other papers -- the Mail, the Mirror, the Express, the Sun, the Star, many of the Sundays -- have been so quiet on this story? Like the police and the government, for different reasons they have been willing it away. Several papers are likely to be worried by the known existence of thousands of invoices found when police were investigating a murder trial involving private detective Jonathan Rees. It has not been clear whether what he did to make the many thousands of pounds he earned would be part of the second police investigation into phone-hacking. But following the Cameron's criticisms of that inquiry, and in light of the judicial inquiry he has now announced, surely they will have to be investigated now. Ironically, given I worked for the Mirror for years, they were the paper which paid Mr Rees to dig up information on me when I was in Downing Street. But there are many other public and private figures on the invoices in the police's possession, and many papers who paid him.

There is a lot of good journalism in Britain, as there is in Ireland. At its best it is a noble profession, and a serious one; serious people taking the world seriously and using the access they can gain to people and places and facts better to inform and entertain the public. But recent trends have been away from that as the dominant strain of journalism. We can have agonised intellectual debates about whither the BBC, is investigative journalism dying, will the internet save or kill traditional newspapers? But let us be honest -- the major media developments for the public in recent years have been celebrity magazines, which have forced further celebritisation of the papers, and reality TV shows. They live off each other. The TV shows and the celebrity culture provide a conveyor belt of names to be built up, knocked down, then bring on the next one. Ireland continues to have a lot of good journalists and I like a lot of your papers. But beware the 'Britification' process. The Mail's scam with the Tribune was a sign. But there are plenty more.

As to where this all ends, who knows? It is hard to see how there won't be more arrests and more prosecutions. The press will lick their wounds but then, as they have so many times before, fight hard and dirty to try to win the argument that anything but toothless self-regulation such as they enjoy at the moment will be an attack on a free press. The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no. David Cameron did not want to be where he is. If he, the police and News International had handled things better in the last few years, he wouldn't be here. But he is. He started to do the right thing on Friday, finally. Now he has to see it through.

Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair's director of communications. The third volume of his diaries, 'Power and Responsibility', was published last week by Hutchinson

Sunday Independent

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