Friday 24 November 2017

Phone hacking inquiry: Private detective told to turn journalist after scandal broke

Sam Marsden and Katie Hodge

THE News of the World told a private detective he had to "become a journalist" after the paper's royal editor was arrested for phone hacking, the press standards inquiry heard today.

Investigator Derek Webb has claimed he was hired by the Sunday tabloid to carry out surveillance on prominent figures including Princes William and Harry, former attorney general Lord Goldsmith, and the parents of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe.

He alleges that a senior News of the World executive told him he had to "stop being a private detective" and join the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) after police arrested journalist Clive Goodman in 2006, the Leveson Inquiry was told.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said Mr Webb approached the union after the News of the World was closed in July following public outcry over the hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone.

Ms Stanistreet told the inquiry in an opening submission: "Mr Webb was hired as a private detective by the News of the World and carried out surveillance for the company for many years.

"However, he alleges that, in the wake of the arrest of the paper's royal editor, Clive Goodman, he was taken aside by a senior executive on the News of the World and told he had to 'stop being a private detective and become a journalist'.

"The same executive also apparently told him he must join the NUJ and acquire an NUJ press card. This he duly did.

"For the NUJ this is a breathtakingly cynical move on behalf of the News of the World."

Ms Stanistreet said the idea that a newspaper editor would not know what their reporters were doing was "laughable".

"At the heart of any newspaper culture is the editor. What he or she says goes," she told the inquiry.

"For anyone who has worked in a newsroom, the concept of an editor who didn't know what their troops were getting up to is laughable."

She added: "To imagine editors as mere bystanders whose underling reporters run rings around them would be fanciful in the extreme."

Ms Stanistreet was scathing about newspaper regulator the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which she said had been "little more than a self-serving gentlemen's club".

She told the inquiry: "It is the view of the NUJ and its members that the PCC has failed, abysmally so."

But she added: "We would absolutely resist any changes that would lead to anything akin to the licensing of journalists or anything that would in the slightest dilute press freedom."

The NUJ general secretary said the newspaper industry, in particular the regional and local press, had been "in crisis" over recent years.

She told the inquiry: "The scale of cut-backs, redundancies, casualisation of the workforce and entire closure of titles has made a very challenging and insecure time for journalists.

"This has been the inevitable result of the entire economic model within the newspaper industry."

Ms Stanistreet said it was vital for Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry to hear from "ordinary working journalists".

"They are the workers at the sharp end who deal with the reality of life in a pressured, busy newsroom every single day," she said.

But she warned that there was a "genuine culture of fear about speaking out" in many workplaces which might deter reporters from giving frank evidence about their concerns to the inquiry.

She told Lord Justice Leveson: "The fear is not just of immediate punishment, but a few months after your inquiry ends a journalist who has spoken out may find herself on a list of redundancies."

Defending the importance of the NUJ, Ms Stanistreet said: "A well-organised union provides a counter-balance to the power of the editors and the proprietors.

"It can limit their excesses and give journalists the confidence to raise their concerns."

She added: "We at the NUJ believe that there is a clear link between a strong trade union presence in a workplace and a strong ethical awareness.

"Collective trade union representation is a moral human right, and journalists should not be denied this right in our newspapers."

Ms Stanistreet urged Lord Justice Leveson to consider the question of who should be allowed to own British newspapers.

"The increasing consolidation of media ownership and the disproportionate power and influence this provides with it also needs to be considered by this inquiry," she said.

"When newspaper titles are bought and sold, there should be a rigorous public interest test.

"The highest bidder should not be allowed to simply walk away with our national titles in their pocket and the accompanying power and influence that brings."

She went on: "A media owner should not have our police and politicians in a stranglehold for fear of their personal peccadilloes being splashed over the front pages. No media group should be allowed to achieve such dominance."

Ms Stanistreet also urged the introduction of "conscience clauses" in contracts to protect reporters who "stand up for a principle of journalistic ethics".

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