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November 18, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:35am

Breaking Fleet Street’s ‘code of omerta’ to discuss the so-called ‘crisis in journalism’

By Dominic Ponsford

There is a code of omerta concealing the crisis in British journalism and industry figures like myself refuse to discuss it – or so says academic and Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart.

He details a litany of recent alleged sins on Fleet Street in a post published on the website Byline. In response to his direct challenge to me on Twitter, I would like to open up this discussion.

On the wider point of whether there is a “crisis” in British journalism, I would point Professor Cathcart to the recently announced shortlist for the British Journalism Awards for public interest journalism.

We had 560 entries for our awards this year, nearly all of which contained evidence of journalism which served a major public good.

I say to Cathcart: please look through the 100 or so finalists and tell me we have a crisis in British journalism.

What we have, in fact, is an industry which does a courageous job of holding the powerful to account and providing a voice for the voiceless in the face of a tough commercial climate and powerful vested interests who seek to silence us.

Just looking at the tabloid finalists in the campaign category we have:

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Turning to the detail of  Cathcart’s allegations I will take each item of the charge sheet in turn:

Ben Stokes’ family tragedy

Brian Cathcart: “The Sun published a front-page article needlessly and cruelly drawing attention to traumatic events involving the family of Ben Stokes that took place before the cricketer was even born.”

Dominic Ponsford: It’s not for me to advise the Sun editor what he puts on his front page, but I would admit this story could have been handled more sensitively. However a double murder, albeit one that happened 31 years ago, will always be a matter of public record. Horrible as it is for the family to have this dredged up, it was a front-page story in New Zealand at the time so it is difficult to see how it could be described as private.

BC: “That story was written by a reporter with a criminal conviction for handling the stolen mobile phone of a woman MP. His name also frequently crops up in civil litigation about phone hacking.”

DP:  The Sun pursued a story after an MP’s mobile phone was handed in apparently containing evidence of criminality. When Nick Parker found no evidence of criminality he told the source who had handed it to him to give it back. To suggest he was part of some conspiracy to sell a stolen phone by handling stolen goods is laughable. Let’s not forget that arguably the greatest scoop of this century, the MPs’ expenses scandal, came about because a journalist was handed stolen information. Phone-hacking features later on in the Cathcart analysis so I will deal with that separately.

Rod Liddle

BC: “A Spectator columnist who regularly flaunts his loathing for Muslims wrote that all Muslims should be prevented from voting in the general election. When the editor was told this was racist and an incitement to race hatred, he declared it was a joke.”

DP: The rantings of one columnist in a right-leaning political magazine does not a crisis in journalism make. Columnists do sometimes get it badly wrong, but if we are to defend freedom of speech we have to sometimes accept that columnists will make crass, upsetting and ill-judged statements. I would say that the Liddle column falls a long way short of the legal definition of incitement.

BC: “The same article, written by a man who has in the past admitted assaulting his pregnant wife and who accepted a police caution for it (though he subsequently denied it happened), also mocked a woman MP who had spoken publicly about surviving domestic abuse.”

DP: I don’t think Rod Liddle’s personal life has any more to do with the “crisis in journalism” than Hugh Grant’s illicit encounter with a prostitute in LA has to do with the campaign for press reform.

Unnamed sources

BC: “Many of our most prominent political reporters stand accused – by one of their own – of routinely allowing themselves to be used as public mouthpieces for unnamed government sources with a proven record of dishonesty, with the result that they have passed on untruths to their readers and viewers.”

DP: Yes, journalists sometimes quote unnamed sources and this can be a difficult area. But I think Cathcart’s argument is not going to get far if he is  going to make BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg the poster woman for the crisis in journalism.

Sports star’s HIV ‘blackmail’ claim

BC: “A retired sports star has accused an unnamed national newspaper of attempting to blackmail him about his HIV-positive health status and also of committing a gross and cruel intrusion into his and his family’s privacy.”

DP: If true this would be a horrendous abuse of press power, I agree. Such claims should be reported to a press regulator, which would investigate them fully, or pursued in the courts where appropriate.

Times reports on Muslims

BC: “A senior reporter at The Times has been found in two separate investigations to have published a fundamentally false article under the headline ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’, and although almost every detail has been authoritatively disproved the Times has not corrected a word. A 66-page report showed that the same reporter had published other front-page articles which were also fundamentally wrong and which also unjustifiably portrayed Muslims as threatening.”

DP: Cathcart has serious issues with Andrew Norfolk’s reporting on the “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care” story and, given the amount of analysis that has gone into it, I don’t have the time or space to get into this particular story in detail. But I would note that former journalist of the year Norfolk is also the man who single-handedly exposed the scandal of largely Muslim gangs sexually abusing young girls in towns across the north of England, which was a hugely difficult story to cover. Norfolk may have, on occasions, got things wrong. Investigative journalists piecing together the truth from multiple secret sources sometimes will make mistakes (Nick Davies made some howlers in his investigation into the News of the World hacking scandal). But Norfolk is again possibly the last person I would use to make the case for there being a “crisis in journalism”.

Transgender ‘discrimination’

BC: “Several national newspapers, led by the Times, stand accused of running cruel campaigns of vilification and discrimination directed at transgender people, without regard for accuracy, balance or fairness.”

DP: It is healthy to have a debate about the way transgender people are covered in the press but I would also argue that we have come a long way. Under the guidance of IPSO, newspapers nowadays almost never mention someone’s gender status unless directly relevant to the story. This is a long way forward from the days when tabloids would routinely write stories about “sex-swap teachers” and so on.

Boris Johnson ‘errors’ in Telegraph columns

BC: “Three times this year the Telegraph has had to correct articles by the same columnist (Boris Johnson), demonstrating not only serial negligence by both writer and newspaper but also that being made to print small corrections on inside pages has no effect on the level of care that is taken.”

DP: I will not argue with Cathcart about our Prime Minister’s relationship with the truth and would agree that if membership of IPSO is to mean anything editors must take sanctions seriously and ensure that action is taken to ensure repeat offenders mend their ways. Thoroughly fact-checking a column lobbed in from Johnson minutes from deadline, like a poorly timed rugby pass, might be challenging for the Telegraph. But I would agree that the inaccuracies that have slipped through could have been corrected more promptly and prominently by the paper.

Royal ‘bullying’ in press

BC: “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have complained of a long-running campaign against them by a number of newspapers, involving fabrication, overt bullying and repeated breaches of privacy. The press reaction appears to have been to step up the bullying. The couple have taken the extremely rare step, for royalty, of suing newspapers. The Duchess is suing the Mail on Sunday for unlawfully publishing a private letter and deliberately editing it to distort its meaning. (The paper denies this.) Prince Harry is suing the owners of the Sun and Mirror over phone hacking.”

DP: It is healthy to have a debate about the way the younger royals, in particular, are covered in the press. But like all celebrities who make a choice to put themselves in the limelight they can’t expect the press to act as stenographers for their PR teams. The decision to sue the Mail on Sunday over publication of a private letter will be settled in court. If the paper loses it could end up paying out £1m+ in legal fees and damages. It argues that it was Markle herself who put discussion of the letter in the public domain.

Phone-hacking claims

BC: “Week in, week out in London the Sun is fighting a rearguard action in the courts to avoid admitting that its journalists, like those of the News of the World and the Mirror, illegally hacked phones. People who sue are paid off with large sums, apparently to prevent the evidence being tested at trial. No fewer than five executives currently occupying senior positions at Murdoch papers have been named in phone-hacking litigation this month alone – dispelling any notion that the hacking scandal is mere history.”

DP: As with the case of Nick Parker, Cathcart does not appear to believe in the concept of innocent until proven guilty. I agree 100 per cent that phone-hacking at the News of the World and Mirror titles was a dreadful scandal. It has been alleged this went on at The Sun as well (although News UK continues to deny this and police investigations drew a blank). As I reported back in 2006 (long before investigating phone-hacking became fashionable) phone “screwing”, to use industry parlance of the time, was rife on Fleet Street. But to the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that any UK media organisations have engaged in this practice for more than a decade. Those that did paid an extremely heavy price. I don’t think it is fair to use this historic wrongdoing to make the case for a crisis in journalism today.

By all means let’s have a debate, but I fear Cathcart is using some of the tactics he would condemn – sensationalism, selective use of the facts and a tendency to run with unproven allegations – to declare a crisis in journalism that does not, in fact, exist.

UPDATE 19/11/19: Cathcart has responded to the above on Byline, saying “journalists are in denial” about the “crisis” in British journalism.

Picture: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

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