‘Hackgate’ debate puts Leveson Inquiry in the spotlight

Higher education took a leading role in the debate around the Leveson Inquiry on Tuesday as Coventry University hosted a public discussion on the phone hacking scandal with a panel of leading journalists and media activists.

The occasion also marked the launch of a new book – The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial? – which brings together expert comment from top academics and media professionals to present a fresh perspective on the biggest scandal to hit the UK press for decades.

Leveson debate - Panel:Raymond Snoddy chaired the debate among the panellists.

Leveson debate - Panel:Raymond Snoddy chaired the debate among the panellists.

Hosted on Coventry University’s London Campus, the event and saw veteran media commentator Raymond Snoddy chair a debate with a host of well-known commentators including Richard Peppiatt, recovering tabloid journalist; Kevin Marsh, former Today programme editor; Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors; journalist and author, Glenda Cooper, and Paul Connew, former deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and the News of the World.

The debate sparked some impassioned comments and ferocious criticism aimed at the tabloid press, with panellists condemning the “lazy” and “outrageously arrogant” writers and editors who have “lost sight of the fact that they are doing journalism”.

Leveson debate - Richard Peppiatt delivered a damning verdict on the state of the UK tabloid press.

Leveseon debate - Richard Peppiatt delivered a damning verdict on the state of the UK tabloid press.

Richard Peppiatt kicked off proceedings with a searing indictment of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s comments on freedom of expression this week at the Leveson Inquiry: “There’s an agenda in tabloid journalism that journalists don’t know they’ve signed up to. A lot of words are banded around like ‘freedom of expression’. Paul Dacre said “I would die in a ditch to defend my columnists’ rights to say whatever they wish”. Well I can find the ditch. I don’t care if I end up dying because of it, as long as it’s not in the same ditch. Put me on the other side of the road at least.

“All they are doing is giving the information that shows their opinion. I left the Daily Star because of its Islamaphobic nature. I wasn’t doing journalism; I was telling stories to entertain. I picked the facts that most entertained the reader. Newspapers have lost sight of the fact that they are doing journalism.”

Kevin Marsh echoed Peppiatt’s sentiments, calling into question the conduct of members of the paparazzi press and of the editors who publish their photos: “Sienna Miller was being chased down the street at midnight, and the people she was being chased by were licensed only by the cameras they held. They were given authority to do what they were doing by their editors. What the hell kind of organisation is it when we think it’s okay for tough, grown men to earn their living in this way?

“If the tables were turned and it was another very powerful, rich organisation, we in the media would be demanding it had a much stricter code of conduct. And yet because it’s the press, and because of this thing we cherish – ‘freedom of speech’ – we let it happen. We let it happen for so long we ended up with the hacking scandal.”

Paul Connew responded to this by offering a different perspective on the culture of celebrity journalism: “I share Kevin’s views, but they are a sledgehammer. I was based in Hollywood and New York for ten years and it was commonplace for paparazzi and celebrity agents to set up snatch photographs. So when Ms X was coming out of a nightclub with her puppy in tow she might well be wearing a low cut dress and would feign shock horror at being photographed.

“In recent years, though, there has become a problem with paparazzi who have become thugs with cameras. Sienna Miller was targeted by the wrong end of paparazzi. If I was an editor I would always want to know where a story comes from. Hacking was down, in part, to lazy journalism. It was easier to do fishing expeditions rather than chase down hardcore news stories.”

Glenda Cooper directed the discussion towards what she sees as the media’s unscrupulous exploitation of social networking channels: “The growth of social media is bringing new issues to the fore. Is it easier to treat people like collateral damage if you’re not knocking on the door? Is it right that papers take stuff off social networking sites? Is this not the equivalent of breaking into someone’s house and taking their photo album?

“Take Ian Redmond, who died on his honeymoon. His pictures were taken off his Facebook page and spread across national newspapers and on every website. There is a public responsibility that you must realise people can see your Facebook page, but I think there’s a difference between friends seeing your stuff and seeing it plastered all over a national paper or TV programme.”

Bob Satchwell, former assistant editor of the News of the World, voiced the view that the Leveson Inquiry will not – and perhaps should not – provide a lasting solution to the issues exposed by the phone hacking scandal: “There was no such thing as a mobile phone when I was at the News of the World. I felt strongly that the bad end of Fleet Street behaved outrageously. No one ever gave a damn about privacy; it hadn’t been thought about in those days. We had no human rights act. I think at that point, the press was outrageously arrogant. “We can do what the hell we want, we’re selling five million copies, and we can do what we want”.

“When I left, I said journalists should behave better. They should think twice before doing something on the edge of legality. Lord Justice Leveson says he wants his inquiry to be the end of it, not just a footnote for academics. But perhaps we have to go through this exercise every decade or so, because there is an argument that the press should be drinking in the last chance saloon all the time. That’s where journalists should always be.”

Members of the audience were also invited to ask questions of the panel, offer their thoughts on the Leveson Inquiry, and challenge any statements made in the new book The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial?. The book is co-edited by John Mair of Coventry University and Professor Richard Keeble of the University of Lincoln, and is on sale now.

John Mair, senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at Coventry University, said: “It was always the intention for this book to be ahead of the curve in providing cutting edge commentary on the Leveson Inquiry. In pulling together such a wide range of expert opinion and perspectives on the hacking scandal, we hope it will make a significant impact on and contribution to the investigations into this saga during what is undoubtedly a seminal period for British journalism.”