By Brian Cathcart
THE RECENT disastrous statement by the UK Society of Editors – the one claiming that ‘the press is certainly not racist’ that had to be withdrawn in shame – began with a familiar bold claim about the ‘vital work’ that journalists do to ‘hold power to account’.
Just how selectively leading British newspapers hold power to account has been vividly illustrated by the treatment given to a scandalous news story about alleged law-breaking at a household-name UK brand owned by an extremely powerful global corporation.
The story made headlines worldwide, from New York to Brazil to Poland. And in Britain it was reported by the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent and some others. But – here’s the thing – not a word about it appeared in the top-selling Daily Mail and Sun, or in the London Times or the Telegraph.
The story in question is the revelation by Byline Investigates that a US private investigator employing illegal techniques investigated Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, for The Sun newspaper. To everyone in journalism apart from the editors of the UK corporate papers this was big news, but those particular editors chose to ignore it altogether.
Cynics will just chuckle. What do we expect? That’s the code of omertà at work. They are observing their traditional practice of circling the wagons when under attack, like they did when Meghan and Harry accused them of lying and racism, like they did when TV presenter Caroline Flack took her own life, and like they have done a thousand times before.
But though it’s true that this was as predictable as it was brazen we would be wrong to let it go at that, for at least two reasons.
The first is that, however normal it may have become, it is no less a flagrant offence against everything that journalism stands for. The Society of Editors paid lip service to the ideals of the trade when it spoke of holding power to account, but it knows very well that many of the most powerful British news organisations hold that duty in contempt.
Rupert Murdoch’s Sun is indisputably a seat of power in the UK, and never more so than now, when Murdoch and his flunkies are in and out of Downing Street all the time, and when it has become impossible to distinguish between the interests of the press and the interests of government.
Yet the Times and the Telegraph, the Mail and the Mirror, the Express and the Daily Star all chose not even to mention to their readers a revelation that is not only extremely damaging to the Sun, but is also a major development in one of the biggest stories in the UK in the past month – the Meghan story.
This is the very opposite of holding power to account. It perfectly matches the characterisation coined by Murdoch himself when discussing journalism many years ago: ‘A newspaper can create great controversies, it can stir up argument within the community, discussion, throw light on injustices—just as it can do the opposite. It can hide things, and be a great power for evil.’
The principle is straightforward. Holding power to account is not a matter of picking and choosing because that means you are ‘hiding things’ – and when you do that you are – Murdoch’s own word – evil.
No journalist, either inside these corporate papers or outside them, should take this routine covering-up lightly. All journalists are debased and damaged by such corruption and it is no wonder, when so many who could call it out remain silent, that trust in journalism in the UK is at catastrophically low levels.
The second reason we should not simply shrug at this disgraceful silence is that this story reminds us, in a vivid and timely fashion, that nothing has changed in this industry, which continues to hold the law in contempt.
Some may say that this was just a Duchess, someone with lots of money and access to lawyers and the courts who can look after herself when things get tough. There is a grain of truth in that, but no more than a grain.
Phone-hacking only came to light 15 years ago because the royal princes and their entourage were hacked, but the victims of hacking, we eventually learned, were not restricted to the rich and famous: they included bereaved families and other victims of tragedy, witnesses to crime (including people in witness protection), the mothers, fathers and children of people in the public eye as well as their doctors and lawyers and, in one case, their parish priest.
Most obscenely of all, the victims of hacking included a teenage girl who had been abducted, who was the subject of a national manhunt, and who was eventually found murdered.
Though we will never know the whole picture because the perpetrating companies won’t tell us, it is likely that three-quarters of those hacked in the peak years of 1995-2005 were people who had no public profile whatever. They were ordinary, law-abiding people whose privacy was trashed in the name of journalism.
And just as history tells us this is about more than a Duchess, it tells us that it is almost certainly about more than the Sun.
When phone-hacking was exposed we saw the corporate papers cover for one another as they are doing now, and hacking proved not to be a matter of one rogue reporter, as we were informed, and not even of one rogue newspaper. It was much more widespread. Think about that when you read the new allegations against the Sun.
This is a corrupt industry causing widespread damage and in desperate need of reform. Don’t listen to their talk of ‘holding power to account’ because that’s a lie. And don’t listen to their talk of ‘freedom of the press’ because what they mean by that is that they should be free from the consequences of their own repellent actions.
We need Leveson part two. Will journalists now stand up for that? Will the political parties?