The UK’s regional press has a strong reputation for behaving ethically and should not be tarnished by the phone-hacking scandal, the Leveson Inquiry heard today.
Editors of newspapers around the country said they had never come across the illegal interception of voicemail messages or the practice of paying public officials for confidential information.
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John McLellan, editor of the Scotsman, told the inquiry that the revelations of wrongdoing that resulted in the News of the World‘s closure were “as much a shock to those of us working outside Fleet Street as for the wider public”.
“The press serving smaller communities, while not perfect, has a very good reputation for behaving responsibly and ethically and should not be tarnished by recent scandals involving newspapers with an entirely different agenda,” he said in his witness statement.
Several regional editors who gave evidence to the inquiry today said subterfuge was sometimes justifiable to obtain a story that was in the public interest.
Jonathan Russell, editor of the Herald in Glasgow, said: “I would say the potential is there for it to be used and it has been used.
“If I thought there was anything likely to be illegal or in breach of the editors’ code of conduct it would be brought to my attention.”
The inquiry was told that the regional press was facing a series of challenges, with both print circulation and advertising revenue falling.
Advertising provides a much bigger proportion of the revenue of regional newspapers than their national counterparts, the hearing was told.
McLellan said job adverts, previously a “mainstay” of the regional press, had “all but disappeared” in recent years.
‘The old inky product is not dead’
Spencer Feeney, editor of the Swansea-based South Wales Evening Post, added: “The general picture is over the last five years advertising revenues in the regional press have about halved.”
He referred to a proposal in Wales to remove the statutory obligation for bodies like councils to place adverts publicising road traffic orders in local papers, a move which could cost the Welsh regional press £1 million a year.
Inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson said: “I am really trying to grapple with the concern which has been expressed that all print media are under pressure, but none more so than newspapers that are not London-based.”
McLellan expressed optimism that new technologies like the iPad and other computer tablets could provide a “brighter future” for the press.
“The new way of reading on tablets and on phones is that people are now re-learning that they have to pay for some of these services,” he said.
Mike Gilson, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, said the internet meant that his journalists now reached a wider audience than ever before.
He added: “The old inky product is not dead… I think there’s still a big, big market for a physical, in-the-hand product, and I am certainly not as pessimistic as some others.”
Off-the-record conversations between reporters and police officers were defended – although Gilson quipped that “in many cases nowadays the chance would be a fine thing”.
He said: “The way to that information is closed off these days by organisations employing huge numbers of press officers… My experience is of a gradual closing down of these things to the point at which it’s bad for democracy.”
Lord Justice Leveson suggested that stories no longer have a “shelf life” because they remain forever on the internet, creating among other things a potential risk of jurors being prejudiced by going online.
But the editors resisted the idea that old stories be removed from the web.
Russell said: “As long as archive newspapers are kept, I don’t personally see a huge difference, just because it’s easier to access it online than go to the national library.
“I don’t see why that means we should be taking stories offline when they’re still available in other places.”
Gilson added that it would be “very hard to put the genie back in the bottle”.
He said: “Once it’s out there as a story that someone did something 10 years ago, it’s just out there, it’s a matter of record.
“I’m not so sure that’s necessarily a bad thing.”
Leveson a ‘great believer in local newspapers’
McLellan said the Scotsman considered identifying celebrities who had taken out injunctions in English courts after fellow Scottish paper the Sunday Herald revealed in May last year that Ryan Giggs was the married footballer at the heart of a controversial privacy case.
The paper decided against the move because, although the injunctions did not apply in Scotland, it could still have been in breach of privacy law.
Lord Justice Leveson voiced concerns that regional journalists often do not cover the courts in person these days, leading to situations where reports are published based on one-sided accounts provided by police officers.
“I make it abundantly clear I am a great believer, and always have been, in what local newspapers do,” he added.
Feeney said: “If a town loses its paper, then clearly courts and councils are not being reported and held up for public scrutiny.”
The South Wales Evening Post editor also issued a plea to Lord Justice Leveson that any new newspaper industry regulator should not be “vastly more expensive” than the current Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
He said: “The regional and local press is in a fragile financial state, its health is fragile. Please don’t make any recommendations that are going to exacerbate that situation.”
Lord Justice Leveson replied: “It may be one has to be more imaginative about the way in which it is all funded.”
‘Unethical behaviour is anathema to regional titles’
Peter Charlton, editor of the Yorkshire Post, told the inquiry that in over 40 years working in the regional press he has never encountered behaviour that “remotely resembles” the subterfuge and invasions of privacy revealed by the phone hacking scandal.
He said in a witness statement: “These practices have never been a feature of regional journalism at any of the newspapers on which I have worked or edited.
“Such unlawful and unethical behaviour is anathema to regional titles. It is not now, nor ever has been, part of our mindset.
“Nor is the obsession with celebrity gossip that was the driver for so much of the subterfuge at red-top titles part of our mind-set.”
Nigel Pickover, editor of the Ipswich Evening Star, told the inquiry his newspaper helped local police when riots threatened to hit Ipswich last summer.
He said: “I deal with senior police officers on an almost daily basis. I squabble with them on an almost weekly basis. The relationship is very very good. It’s vital to have relationships with police.”
Manchester Evening News editor Maria McGeoghan said in her experience the PCC was “very effective”.
“To have an adjudication against you is a badge of shame for a paper, and we will work very hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” she said.
“We have a contract of trust with our readers. They have to trust us, and if we had a constant stream of corrections and apologies as a result of something that’s gone wrong within the PCC code, that breaks that contract of trust.”
Noel Doran, editor of the Irish News, was asked about the key to his “ethical success” in relation to the PCC as the regulator has never found him in breach of its code of practice.
“I interact with the heads of departments and with senior staff generally so that the staff have a good understanding of the PCC’s code of practice,” he said.
Doran said his paper’s relationship with the Northern Irish political parties was “certainly not too close”.
He added: “We don’t see very much of them, they tend to keep us at arm’s length, which probably suits both sides.”