If you’re in any way interested in the British press, publishing, or the ethics of journalism this Tuesday promises a treat at the Leveson Inquiry. Ian Hislop, Editor of the Satirical Magazine ‘Private Eye’ is called to give evidence.
In pure entertainment value he will have to work hard to upstage one of last week’s core witnesses.
The owner of Britain’s most successful magazine publishers, Richard Desmond, was giving evidence. His company Northern and Shell PLC own not only a stable of magazines but also other media interests including The Express, The Sunday Express, The Daily Star and The Daily Star on Sunday.
I confess that I enjoyed Desmond’s testimony, and not simply for its novelty. In his gravelly North London accent he put across his interpretation of the publishing business. His manner was that of a streetwise uncle chatting about business down the pub. He was outspoken with the Inquiry.
It was clear that Desmond is expert in turning businesses from loss to profit. He is no asset stripper, believing he saved the Express from extinction at the hands of its rivals.
But at The Express anyone doing jobs that couldn’t be defined were out. This is how he put it:
“. . . one of the things I remember is walking around the floor and there was a room with a lot of scruffy geezers and I said to the editor, “Who are they?” “Oh, I can’t tell you who they are”. “What do you mean, you can’t tell me?” “Oh, it’s the investigative department.”
So I said, “What is it?” “I can’t tell you.” So Paul, [Ashford, Northern and Shell Group Editorial Director], who is in charge of that area, found out what they did.
They were special investigators, you know, sort of ‘Bugle’ stuff, ‘Dan Dare’ stuff. And then the final thing was I think the first week they asked for £5,000 or £10,000 of cash, or the editor at the time asked for that, to pay these geezers, shall we call them, to do their private investigative work.
My reaction was the last thing we’re going to do is to start paying out cash to people, we don’t know what they’re doing, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So I said to Paul, “You know what? I don’t like the whole thing”. Paul didn’t like the whole thing. “You know what, cut the whole area. No one knows what it is and it seems a bit dodgy.””
Over the days that I’ve been watching this Inquiry I’ve developed an affection for Robert Jay Q.C. a counsel to the proceedings.
At first he seemed simply like a dog with a bone, but as time has passed he has become not just any dog, but rather like a Yorkshire Terrier, that breed of small, highly intelligent, aggressive, hunting dog bred originally to catch rats in factories and sometimes put down the lairs of ferrets, weasels and other much larger predators to drive them into the light.
I grew up with this breed and greatly admire them.
Last Thursday though the good Mr. Jay could hardly get a word in edgeways when Richard Desmond gave his evidence. Nevertheless a few spirited exchanges took place.
When Mr.Jay asked: “What interest, if any, do you have in ethical standards within your papers, or is that purely a matter for the editors?” Mr. Desmond’s reply was amazing.
“Well, ethical, I don’t quite know what the word means, but perhaps you’ll explain what the word means, ethical”, he said.
Many no doubt hearing reports of these words for the first time out of context, perhaps in reportage from rival media, perhaps on T.V. will hold the opinion that any being who says such things must be an unethical person.
I don’t agree.
Years ago, when I worked with Gavin Fairbairn, who is now a professor of philosophy at Leeds Metropolitan University we attended a conference in Manchester. In the discussion I was getting hot under the collar on the subject of people’s ‘rights’. His response was to ask me dismissively ‘What is a right?’
He went on to demonstrate, at least to my satisfaction, that although we attribute generic meanings to such terms as ‘right’, and I would suggest also ‘ethics’, they have no more validity than when we pronounce something to be ‘nice’ because we’re too lazy to identify the essence of the thing that we consider attractive, or useful.
Long ago sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, “What does ethics mean to you?” Here are some typical replies:
“Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong.”
“Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs.”
“Being ethical is doing what the law requires.”
“I don’t know what the word means.”
“Ethics consists of the standards of behaviour our society accepts.”
These replies might be typical of our own. The meaning of “ethics” is hard to pin down, and the views many people have about ethics are shaky. The last statement is particularly difficult because what ‘society’ expects depends according to a number of variables at the time, and even that presupposes that ‘society’ is a homogenous entity.
Richard Desmond is, in my view, wholly correct to proscribe discussions of ethics within his organization, if what he means is that defined issues such as privacy, consent, and doing no harm are talked about more specifically, by name, as they impact day-to-day processes.
Mr. Jay went on to afford Mr. Desmond the opportunity to make virtually this point:
“You make it clear everybody’s ethics are different: “We don’t talk about ethics or morals, because it’s a very fine line.
” . . . The very use of that term or language would suggest that certain things are on the right side of the line and certain things are on the wrong side of the line. Can we agree about that?”
Mr Desmond replied: “As I say in my statement, we don’t talk about ethics or morals because it’s a very fine line and everybody’s ethics are different.” Mr. Jay in respnse asked: ” It may be you don’t talk about ethics or morals because you simply don’t care less about them, or it may be, as you say, that there’s a very fine line and it’s often difficult to say what falls on which side of the line. . . . One should go on, in fairness to you: “We do, of course, care about the title’s reputation and so would not run a story if we thought it would damage that or seriously affect someone’s life. . . . So that is an ethical consideration, isn’t it?”
To which Mr Desmond replied: “Of course it is!”
Not many newspapers reported that full exchange though, did they? Instead they took their usual stance of sticking pins into Mr. Desmond. One article went so far as to question his sanity!
Lord Leveson is unlikely to read these words but were he to do so they would not be meat to the process he presides over. It’s not that his Inquiry is so much a ‘dog’s breakfast’ in the sense the term is commonly understood, indeed the proceedings under his stewardship are conducted very professionally.
The fact remains, however, that this whole time consuming, expensive process where counsel gnaws laboriously over the bones of how the newspaper business conducts itself can’t really be in the country’s best interests, unless the agenda is it break the publishing industry?
Lord Leveson has repeated on many days, using different phrases, that this is emphatically not his agenda. One hopes that the government shares it?
Mr. Desmond admitted in his evidence mistakes were made by staff on his newspapers. It is a fact that The Express published more defamatory comments about an unfortunate family who lost a child in Portugal than any other British newspaper. He apologised to the family perhaps as many times in his evidence as he acknowledged the mistake.
A deadly cocktail of systems and understandings seems to have occurred at The Express. Its editor at the time Peter Hill chose to feature the story over a 17 week period. But the trouble was that the information coming out of Portugal was inaccurate and as a result 37 of the articles proved to be grossly defamatory.
In a report by Mr. Hill made to a Government Select Committee referred to by Mr. Jay in his examination of Mr. Hill, earlier on Thursday, he stated:
‘”It certainly increased the circulation of the Daily Express by many thousands on those days, [when stories about the missing child], were being published without a doubt.
“It also massively increased the audiences on the BBC as their Head of News has acknowledged. It did this for all newspapers.”
Mr. Desmond in his evidence inferred that the then president of the Press Complaints Commission made an example of Mr Hill, and thus scapegoated the Express, and the Northern and Shell Group, when to some extent many, if not all British not to mention the foreign newspapers, were to some degree culpable.
Sadly, despite the shadow cast over the press by Lord Leveson’s bonhomous presence, many editors have failed to fully appreciate that he is not a ‘pussy cat’.
On Tuesday 6th December, 2011 The Independent hinted that Richard Thomas CBE, a former Information Commissioner, had mislead parliament as a result of information revealed in the evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. This he strongly denied in his evidence later in the week.
On 15th December Lord Leveson felt he needed to comment that reports in the press about the proceedings should be accurate. On 11th January he complained that as a result of questions that he had put to witnesses speculation had been raised in the press about possible conclusions he had reached with respect to findings. He said:
“I would not want it to be thought that I have reached conclusions, for I have not!”
There are also numerous examples of Richard Desmond’s evidence being selectively quoted in a way to support a view that he is pariah within the industry. This may be an opinion, but it’s not true reporting.
What is clear is that Desmond is someone who understands the newspaper business sufficiently to make a profit where many, more experienced within the field, predicted huge losses. Unlike some I don’t care if, as reported by Mathew Norman in the Telegraph, his butler brings him a banana on a silver tray twice a day. So what?
I would care, however, if one of his newspapers wrongly accused me of killing a child, and spread the story out over a number of weeks. Having written thus, surely I won’t be the only person outside of the official record of the Inquiry to note that in his evidence Richard Desmond stated: “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to find [the missing child referred to earlier on this page]”.
As Nick Cohen wrote in The Spectator back in November: “The Leveson Inquiry has all the makings of an establishment disaster.”
The press themselves, however, may also correctly be regarded as part of the U.K. establishment and continue to make gaffs and enemies that they can ill afford.
Let’s hope Hislop will bring something to the table.
[Note: This post relies heavily on data from the official Leveson Inquiry website and is used here under the terms of its conditions of copyright.]