After the sentence…..

IN mitigation before today’s sentencing, Andy Coulson, former Chief Reporter Neville Thurlbeck and their colleagues James Weatherup and Greg Miskew publicly admitted phone hacking for the first time.

They said they did it simply because they thought it was allowed.

This was understandable because it was in The Press Complaints Commission code of conduct which – incredibly – still says there is a public interest defence for intercepting telecommunications.

It was repeated in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and the News of the World staff handbook which made adhering to the Code of Practice a professional responsibility. Thurlbeck, while claiming there was a public interest defence for the hacking he commissioned, submitted the handbook as mitigation.

They were also told it was okay by media lawyers, who use the public interest as a defence for all kinds of crimes committed by journalists as part of their work. It’s for that reason that buying a stolen disc containing expense details of politicians, for example, did not lead to prosecution.

Of course there really is no public interest defence for the routine hacking of celebrities’ phone messages. What should have been used rarely for stories of significance became a fishing exercise. Their mitigation doesn’t stand up when considering the speculative hacking of Glenn Mulcaire.

Equally, there can be no excuse for listening to the voicemail of someone who has died or their family, although it could be argued attempting to find a missing child is in the public interest.

Given one news editor would regularly demand the numbers of my own contacts – some of whom had also lost loved ones – I find the hacking of the phones of murder victims and their families particularly troubling.

But, while I was never in a position where I would have considered it, I wonder whether for all journalists there should be times when listening to phone messages would be a justified breach of the law?

If a reporter had finally been able to stand up the endless accusations about Jimmy Savile, or evidence of a paedophile ring at the heart of Government, would the public see it as in their interest? What about if it could prove a Prime Minister had knowingly employed a criminal or had lied about reasons for entering a war? Would it be justified then?

Perhaps this police investigation and public inquiry has irrevocably changed the industry and popular support for journalists and so the answer is a resounding “No”. And maybe some of that is for the good. But I do wonder whether how many reporters are now unwilling to take any risks in case they end up in The Clink.

I also wonder whether, if it happened during this current chilly climate, the stolen Expenses’ disc would result in the arrests of both the journalists who bought it and the public officials who sold it.

Before the hacking scandal, when I told people I’d worked at the News of the World they often asked how many stories were made up. I said, to the best of my knowledge, none. Lawyers demanded the highest levels of proof from their reporters.

I was arrested because I’d transcribed a voicemail given to me by a source to stand up a story he was selling. It took just ten days for the police to verify I’d been given it legitimately rather than obtaining it through hacking, helped by the fact I’d taped our conversation, as was demanded by the NotW legal team.

During police questioning I was asked how well I knew the men sentenced today. Having spent most of my time on the road in the North, I’d only met most of them less than a handful of times. I’ve seen Neville Thurlbeck once more since.

He gave an insightful lecture about what makes a good Fleet Street journalist and changes to press freedom to my students shortly after his guilty plea late last year. Eloquent as ever – but also humble and contrite – it was a fascinating session.

Afterwards some students said they hoped he didn’t go to jail as he was “too nice”, seduced by the notorious charm which helped him keep many a source on side.

I said they were underestimating him and that I was sure he was tough enough to survive relatively unscathed. As he faces his first night behind bars, I do hope I’m right.

When asked whether he’d known about Rebekah Brooks and Coulson’s relationship, Neville said no one in the newsroom had a clue. They’d managed to keep it quiet right under the noses of some of the most experienced muckrakers in the industry.

“They were close colleagues for a long period of time and I feel for them and their families,” he added. “I know this makes me a terrible hypocrite.”

Chatting afterwards Neville told me that after long discussions with the police and prosecution, he couldn’t bring himself to give evidence against those former colleagues, despite the chance it could have reduced his sentence.

Judge Saunders said this week he was disappointed that “very successful, investigative, capable journalists” were not prepared to “come clean” until mitigation.

Now the gloves are well and truly off and these once lauded multi-award winning journalists are threatened and ridiculed. I have a little experience of how they may feel. During the 10 days before I was cleared, I was bombarded with abuse on email and social media.

Much of that was as a result of the timing of my arrest which was the first during the Leveson Inquiry and as such there was heightened interest. Despite being unimportant both at the News of the World and in terms of the investigation, my picture was splashed across the national news.

Like many comments directed at Rebekah Brooks, criticism was often highly gendered. There were suggestions about how I’d managed to get to Fleet Street at a young age and how I’d found some of my best stories. There were comments about my physical appearance and my sexual history. Some questioned my ability to ‘hack’ being a journalist, given I’d left the industry before I was 30.

I made the decision to move into academia because, while I hadn’t been asked to do anything illegal, I was often asked to do things I couldn’t square with my own conscience.

This included having to feed an incessant hunger for celebrity stories which was the number one priority under the editorship of Coulson, a former showbiz columnist for The Sun.

Perhaps naively, I’d become a journalist because I wanted, if not to change the world, then to at least try to make it better for people in communities like mine.

It’s the reason I chose tabloid journalism. No one I knew read the broadsheets. They simply did not speak to or for the mining and shipbuilding town where I was raised.

But by the time I got there the agenda of those papers seemed less concerned about fighting for the rights of working class people and more about keeping them distracted with meaningless fluff. And I certainly did not intend to spend my entire working life writing about the likes of Kerry Katona.

Indeed the place where I felt my work really mattered to ordinary people was not at the nationals but when working as a regional reporter.

Unfortunately, despite no accusations of a local newspaper being involved in phone hacking or bribing public officials, they are paying a heavy price for this scandal.

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

Throughout all of this, my old pal Pat Lavelle has popped into my mind time and again. He was my first News Ed having given me a job following after work experience.

I last saw him a few weeks before his death in March 2010 when he took me out for lunch. He died of the disease of the hack; too much coffee and too many fags.

If it hadn’t been for the relationship Pat built with detectives at West Yorkshire Police and his continuous pressure on them to DNA test the letters sent by Wearside Jack – the Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer – John Humble would not have been found.

He was a brilliant local news hound who spent hours immersed in investigations, working his contacts in both the police and the criminal underworld. And in that he was one of the last of his kind.

Locals once depended on their relationships with public officials. Reporters began every morning doing “a round of calls” – ringing every duty inspector and fire station in their area – and going through the overnight logs. That’s how they got stories from their patch long before the nationals and the television. And that’s one of the reasons people bought them.

Now they are reliant on press officers who often think their job is to stop reporters finding out what is happening and feed them yarns about cleaning up graffiti and lower crime stats.

It also makes it more difficult for a young reporter from the regions to pique the interest of Fleet Street by getting a good line on a news story that’s made the nationals, like I did a decade ago.

And these foot soldiers didn’t even get a say in all this. Leveson wheeled out a selection of London’s great and good while in places like Ipswich and Liverpool and Glasgow and Country Durham reporters plodded on, trying to make a difference in an increasingly impossible climate, without even the ability to speak to their local cops.

The most damaging consequence of phone hacking and the way it has been used to curb press freedom is that it has succeeded in stopping any reporter speaking to any public official without the nod from the Great Press God in HQ.

In this they’ve ensured there will be no more Pat Lavelles. No more local newspaper hacks who use their contacts in public office to build brilliant investigations which matter to local people.

And that – for ordinary people all over this country- is perhaps the greatest travesty resulting from phone hacking, accusations of bribing public officials and subsequent changes to press freedom.

The Sun and other national papers will continue on, with the lawyers and the money to fight their corner. Local newspapers may not have that chance.

 

Mourning the loss of the regional hacks

I’m a young (ish) woman who was arrested as part of an investigation into the wrong doings in offices I never worked in, during a time I wasn’t there.

That made me good enough to be the ‘bit different’ panelist at City University’s Journalism in the Dock event this week.  This meant two things; a freebie to London and an excuse to buy a new top and pair of shoes.

So there was I, doing my best ‘I’m clever’ voice while Brian Cathcart and my old boss Neil Wallis went hammer and tong about press freedom and the results of Leveson.

Everyone on the panel (bar me) was a middle-aged, middle class man who was, or had been, a general rather than a foot solider in newspapers.

Which is representative of the whole sorry mess really. One bunch of middle class and middle-aged men are really annoyed that another bunch of  middle class and middle-aged men found out they’d been naughty and are demanding that a third bunch of middle class and middle-aged men do something about it.

Meanwhile it is the often not so middle class or middle-aged reporters in the regions who are really paying the price.

Personally, I’m far more concerned police officers who have never taken a bribe are being arrested than any of Leveson’s proposals. He’s getting the blame for a whole set of draconian changes which will ensure that never again will a regional crime reporter in a grubby coat will prop up the bar in a police club.

This will undoubtedly not only lead to fewer crimes being detected but also make regional papers even more unlikely to flog enough papers to keep going.

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

It made me think of my old pal Pat Lavelle – my first News Ed- who got me my first job after works experience and who I last saw a couple of months before his death two years ago when he took me out for lunch. He died of the disease of the hack; too much coffee and too many fags.

If it hadn’t been for the relationship Pat built with detectives at West Yorkshire Police and his continuous pressure on them to DNA test the letters  sent by Wearside Jack – the Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer – John Humble would not have been found.

He was a brilliant local news hound who spent hours immersed in investigations, working his contacts in both the police and  the criminal underworld. And in that he was one of the last of his kind.

Local newspapers once depended on their relationships with public officials. Reporters began every morning doing “a round of calls” – ringing every duty inspector and fire station in their area – and going through the overnight logs. That’s how they got stories from their patch long before the nationals and the television. And that’s one of the reasons local people bought them.

Now they are reliant on press officers who often think their job is to stop reporters finding out what is happening and feed them yarns about cleaning up graffiti and lower crime stats.

It also makes it more difficult for young reporters to pique the interest of Fleet Street by getting a good line on a news story that’s made the nationals, like I did almost a decade ago.

And these foot soldiers in the regionals didn’t even get a say in all this.  Leveson wheeled out a selection of London’s great and good while in places like Ipswich and Liverpool and Glasgow and Sunderland local reporters plodded on, trying to make a difference in an increasingly impossible climate, without even the ability to speak to their local cops.

In London people are now discussing ways and means to make their jobs even more difficult.

And when they succeed in stopping any reporter speaking to any public official without the nod from the Great Press God in HQ, they are also ensuring  there will be no more Pat Lavelles. No more local newspaper hacks who use their contacts in public office to build brilliant investigations which matter to local people.

And that – for ordinary people all over this country- is the real travesty  of the changes to press freedom. The Sun will continue on, with the lawyers and the money to fight their corner. Local newspapers may not have that chance.

What should replace the Press Complaints Commission?

I realise this blog is becoming little more than a Sunday afternoon activity. Which isn’t good. My only defence is that my day job working on the Multimedia Journalism degree at Teesside University keeps me pretty busy.

On Friday, that day job took me to neighbours the University of Sunderland on Friday for a conference examining the future for regional Media. (#mediafuture)

The speaking and panel list included: Helen Goodman, shadow minister for Media; Society of Editors stalwart Bob SatchwellTyne Tees Political Editor Gerry Foley; editors of local press and yours truly, amongst others.

Thinking of new ways to create revenue in regional media and the eternal quest for 30 per cent profit margins for regional newspaper companies was a hot topic. Helen Goodman made a strong case for a reduction in international ownership of regional news and a reduction of profit demands.

And as you can imagine the Press Complaints Commission’s ‘winding down’ announcement was also up there on the agenda.

There’s been much speculation about what will and what should replace the PCC. Leveson rumbles on and PCC chairman Lord Hunt faced an uncomfortable questioning. It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before they disbanded.

But what should happen next? The industry is divided between those who think we need a statutory regulatory system and those who claim that would lead to government control.

For me, it’s not the Code of Practice which is the issue. If you follow it strictly you were unlikely to stray far from the path of the righteousness. It’s how it is regulated and enforced.

The PCC is reactive. It relies on members of the public to make a complaint and then it investigates.

But surely what we need is a  proactive regulator? One which scrutinises papers looking for those who have actively broken the code, including those who breach the clause about accuracy. When a newspaper breaks any of those sections which have the public interest clause, they would have to make a case for the breach.

Persistent or deliberate breaches could lead to an independent and open inquiry in to the paper to examine culture. Those who’ve broken the law would be prosecuted. And this would happen before we hit the crisis point which led to Leveson.

After all, there’s nothing like the fear of bad publicity to bring things into stark focus. Just ask News International.

Of course this would be expensive and it would have to be funded from somewhere. Perhaps by some form of regulation tax being levied against media against profits.

And the code itself needs a bit of a makeover to allow for changes to law around privacy, subterfuge and payments. There is still a public interest defence for listening to mobile phone messages, for example. No, really.

But I know plenty of out-of-work journalists who could do a brilliant job investigating the way their colleagues operate. Believe me, we can spot a dodgy story a mile off.

I’m sure there’ll be a fair few gasps of horror about this idea. And some may be warranted. The idea of a team of people going through the press every day checking for inaccuracies and other rule-breaks definitely has a bit of an Orwellian feel. When it comes to how people are monitored in our democracy,  I’ve always been uncomfortable with the old ‘if you’ve nowt to hide’ adage too.

And perhaps the whole thing is unfeasible. How much would it cost to run this kind of organisation?

But overall, I’d rather a team of good journalists acted as the eyes-and-ears of the public when scrutinising media than Government. Because that has even more of an Orwellian feel…..shudder……..

WikiLeaks and the Global Intelligence Files

Last night, just as I was off to bed, WikiLeaks started counting down to a new release on twitter.

I ended up hiding under the duvet with my IPhone –  hoping the light wouldn’t wake up the hubby – reading other people’s emails.

The fact I’d just watched Homeland didn’t help. After two hours scouring WikiLeaks’ Global Intelligence files  looking for nuggets of international conspiracy I was pretty knackered. And I have to be honest it quickly descended into little more than a trawl for international tittle-tattle and gossip.

However, this is proving an interesting example of the power of participatory journalism and social media.

Video streaming by Ustream

The crowd sourcing bug has hit. The audience is also the producer. Thousands of people around the world are accessing emails and tweeting the best lines. Like thousands of others around the globe I was caught up in the momentum of a WikiLeaks moment.

It’s something you can do too. Look through the emails, find info and tweet #gifiles. International political news disseminated by you, direct from your sofa.

Will this have the same impact as the US Embassy cable leak? Probably not. The  ‘villain’ is faceless corporation Stratfor who – let’s be honest – none of us had even heard of yesterday.

It is difficult to focus on a corporation in the same way as a government. Even if they are clucking moral outrage while peddling private information to customers ranging from British military officials to Coca-Cola.

And the ‘hero of democracy’ is faceless too. This leak has come from the hacktavist collaborative Anonymous. There’s no Bradley Manning  to romanticise with Nobel Peace Prize nominations and messages of support.

There’s also no mainstream media partnership in the UK. The Guardian used data visualisation to make the 2010 leak more accessible. But following a public spat with Julian Assange they are not one of today’s partnership organisations, which range from Italian red-top L’espresso to Rolling Stone (whose online coverage of the whole affair was notably sparce today.)

There’s also no US heavy-hitter like The New York Times who partnered with WikiLeaks in the past. One would hope these absences are not the result of a sobered Anglo-US press.

But that’s not to say there won’t be a fall out. There’s certainly some juicy stuff. From an email which alludes to ‘Clinton and ‘Funny ChimCom money‘ to descriptions of Sarkosy (nicknamed Sarko) being ‘leaned on’ by Russian diplomats to stop ‘cheerleading sanctions’. There’s no country named in the sanction email, but September 09 date would suggest it was against Iran. Of course both of these suggestions are completely unsubstantiated.

However, hard evidence or not I cannot help but keep looking. This will become my bedtime reading as I try to monitor how it permeates mainstream media over the coming days.

Sun on Sunday – a quick analysis

AS Rupert Murdoch tweets sales are expected to be around three million for first Sun on Sunday, I decided to do a quick analysis of thematic priorities of articles.

The Sun on Sunday first ever front page.s.

Of course this is subjective. Some articles, like Amanda Holden’s five-page account of her birth could have been put in either the celebrity or personal account of tragedy category. I decided on the latter as it was the crucial line.

I’ve had to make similar decisions with some other stories, and you may not agree with my categorisation. So if you think I’ve got these numbers wrong, then that’s okay.

And if I was doing this with more time on my hands, I would give actual number of words which would give greater insight in to the thematic priorities of the paper. This is important as while on first glance there appears to be a lot of Funnies, they were mostly two or three paragraph fillers.

But  that’s too much for today. I’ve also only counted the stories in the main paper – not the supplements.

What I hope this will give a snap shot of content of the paper as it emerges from the ashes of the News of the World.

And just as a side note, the wry eyebrow award goes to the costing for the Death Star filler on page 29. Made me chortle.

So, from highest to lowest in category order for number of stories:

Celebrity: 29

Football: 22

Funnies: 17

Crime: 10

Lifestyle: 7

Home Affairs: 7

Olympics: 7

Columns: 6

Other sport: 6

Personal account of tragedy: 5

Foreign news: 4

Immigration: 3

Real life: 3

Politics: 3

Politicians in celebrity terms: 2

NHS: 2

Semi naked women: 2

Foreign policy: 1

Environmental: 1

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