Thursday, 5 January 2012

Notes on Leveson and the Need for Tabloid Revolution

THE CATALYST which created Leveson, the now erroneous Milly Dowler ‘false hope’ moment, may have vanished. But the pressing need for this inquiry remains.

To agree with this position I realise you need to accept the need for reform exists. You either do or you don’t. I do.
The Leveson Inquiry should be the spark that ignites a tabloid revolution.
In fact, without radical reform, tabloid newspapers will slowly fade from any meaningful prominence in our lives. They are dying as we speak.
I am a huge admirer of our industry. And a fierce and loyal protector of those who inhabit it. But I am not blind to our ancient style and tactics which make us an anachronism on the modern media landscape. Privately, I know many of us feel this way.
The need to modernise and revolutionise our technology – iPads, paid-for internet content etc – has been well argued for elsewhere.
But the case for tone and style has been largely overlooked.
Tabloids which were once merely strident and bold have stepped over the edge, inhabiting dark agendas of hate and gratuitous criticism.
We are like the cocky bigot at the dinner party. Embarrassing and out of step with the assembled guests who thought they had invited Mark Zuckerberg but got Sid James instead.
Tabloids are losing the bond of trust and loyalty with their readers, especially the young who see our tone and style as crass, heavy handed and old fashioned.
Worse still, they see us as no more than a damp piece of paper shoved through the letterbox by a 15-year-old schoolboy at 7am to be read by dad on the train.
To the under 25s, we are as cutting edge as Alvar Lidell reading the BBC news on the wireless in a dinner jacket.
Vicious character assassinations, bogus public interest defences, gross invasions of privacy, sensational misleading headlines, clichĂ© ridden copy. They don’t like the cut of your jib or mine. And they don’t buy us in numbers that matter anymore.
And after a raft of phone hacking admissions and allegations, we are no longer seen as the gruff but dependable watchdog.
The dog developed a vicious bite, attacked the readers and they no longer want him in their home.
But we cannot simply transfer our existing tabloid model onto the new, burgeoning technology in much the same way as the BBC could not hope to modernise itself by putting brilliantined old Alvar on their website.
To do so will see the continued, inexorable decline in our readership and our inevitable demise.
Our industry desperately needs to find a new voice if it wants to continue being heard.
Leveson will provide a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to look at ourselves squarely in the mirror and see all our faults and foibles laid bare and put them right. We delude ourselves if we look in this mirror and believe we are still, “the fairest of them all”.
The criticisms which have been hurled our way are sometimes exaggerated, and often one-sided. But many are painfully accurate.
We need to rein in our worst excesses, re-establish a bond of trust with the reader and refine each newspaper’s unique personality and attitude which has remained frozen since the 1950s and 60s.
It is not just our public face which needs modernising. Many tabloid newspapers are antediluvian to their hidden cores and management styles are of another age.
I still cringe at the memory of one poor freelance who was on a shift and a little late with some copy. In full earshot of the office, the executive walked over to her desk and told her: “Put your coat on, go home, don’t come back.”
Another gimlet-eyed executive told a well respected staffer being sent on a big buy-up: “Your wife’s just had a baby, you have a big mortgage, don’t f*** up! You need this job.”
And I am unable to forgive News International for making one of our most respected and valued colleagues redundant when his young wife was battling cancer.
Staff brutality like this takes place on a regular basis. When I was news editor, I was asked to attend several News International seminars organised by HR where the chief theme was, “How to Sack Your Staff and Not Give Them a Pay-off”.
The irony of that, given my current position, is not lost on me!
I console myself with the memory of being called as a witness to one sacking and telling them, in front of their intended victim, exactly what I thought of their bogus 'disciplinary'.
I expect Leveson to push all our problems to the surface and we ignore them at our peril.
It remains to be seen if the Inquiry is up to the job of course but we must hope that it is.
I have a few early criticisms.
A few random, crank witnesses seem to have been called merely because they are visible. Peter Burden was an obvious one. Everything he related to the Inquiry was based on supposition and hearsay. The fact that he had written a book based on all of this seemed bizarrely to qualify him as an expert witness. And the Inquiry lapped up his bile.
But it was Paul McMullan’s appearance which did most to damage the credibility of Leveson and his team.
They smiled indulgently as he poured out his vicious parody of tabloid journalism. Worse, they failed to step in when he began to hurl unfounded allegations against Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, seriously prejudicing any possible criminal proceedings against them.
When I took the stand and offered an alternative account, it was met with sneers.
The Leveson Inquiry must avoid at all costs the nervous belief that its raison d'ĂȘtre will only been served if it finds fault with us and that many millions of pounds of public funds will have been wasted if he concludes nothing is amiss in the tabloid world.
The biggest sneer of all was reserved for the meeting room immediately before my appearance when Robert Jay QC introduced himself and announced that in his opinion, the News of the World was ‘nothing but smut’.
I felt like Cinderella being mocked by one of the Ugly Sisters for her shabby clothes.
You may or may not agree with him. But on that day, I began to suspect the Inquiry had a pre-conceived conclusion of what tabloid journalism is about before it had heard the evidence. I hope not.
Certainly, Lord Justice Leveson looked strangely unfamiliar with our management structures when he appeared bewildered by my assertion that a chief reporter would have no influence upon whether or not video footage of Max Mosley should be up-loaded to our website and whether Mr Mosley should or should not be contacted prior to publication.
That would be like me assuming it will be one of Lord Justice Leveson’s solicitors who will be reaching conclusions, making recommendations and writing a report when the Inquiry ends and not the learned man himself.
The Inquiry needs to get a firm grip on how newspaper decisions are made and who makes them if it is to have any real understanding of how our industry works and make any meaningful criticisms of it.
Further evidence of an adversarial approach to those who defend tabloid journalism came from David Sherborne, the lawyer representing the Dowler family and other victims of the News of the World's phone hacking.
At the Inquiry he waved a piece of paper, Chamberlain style, which he inferred was evidence of my criminal activity. I am certain I am aware of what this piece of paper contains and so are the police and it is nothing of the sort. I brought it to the attention of Simon Greenberg and Bill Akass at News International in April 2011 at a meeting and later in a memo.
It has long been understood that you can libel someone by innuendo. But if you can substantially prejudice potential criminal proceedings against someone by innuendo, then this was surely a fine example.
It is perhaps too much for us to expect a blemish free Inquiry during thousands of hours and millions of spoken and written words.
The calibre and quality of the Leveson Inquiry team is impeccable.
But they must ensure they give no-one the excuse to brand it a “circus” or “anti-tabloid”, words which have already been bandied about a little too often.
We need a tabloid press. It is a massive force for good, as the Daily Mail’s bold coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder has shown.
We need Leveson to allow us to see ourselves as we are, to move on and reform. And there must be the desire within us to do so.
But he must ensure the mirror he holds before us is shining and true and not a twisted fairground distortion.

27 comments:

  1. Interesting thoughts "Neville".

    If you are NT do you agree with me that it is time to bring tabloid surveillance tactics on to a proper statutory footing? See my blog post:

    http://actnowtraining.wordpress.com/

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  2. whatever. I hope each and everyone of the NOWT low life get locked up. Absolute disgrace. One or two "good" things does not make amends for the sheer evilness which was poured out with each copy of NOTW.

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  3. Well said.
    Time to re-set the business.
    if nothing else for your own survival.
    Love the Sid James reference.
    Disagree with your view on McMullan. He is useful to us all.
    We can all agree - there, that is EXACTLY what the profession shouldn't be.

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  4. You should start a Twitter-account.

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  5. If the Tabloids wanted to change they could have. Its long been said they are pretty useless at reporting news, except the odd scandal and seem more interested in who is sleeping with who or taking what drug + sport.

    To anyone under 35 these topics are of little concern, this is not our choice of media anymore.

    The gossip is easily findable on the internet, twitter etc... and is no longer fresh when published. The super injunctions proved that.

    Scandals are very similar, sure the odd fake shake uncovers something interesting but the rest of the scandals seem much more opportunist and based on the political leanings of the paper. Todays consumer gets their news from multiple sources through out the day. Case in point, when the Mail ran a story about a school girl dying from a falling tree when she was off because of the strikes. Their headline blamed the teachers. That story didn't hold water however and was pulled in its original form. This is not news, its biased opinion and a lot of consumers are disgusted by the perversion of news like this.

    Not being the smartest of journalists, eventually they turn on and attack their own readership. If a paper has a political / moral / corrupt ( paid for by millionaires to push a distortion of reality ) standpoint they can't always write stories that appeal to their readership. Would it not be better to just report the news?

    So what can be done.

    1. Try to report real news stories, without prejudice where possible.

    2. Try real investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is not bribing police and hacking phones. Its about uncovering corruption and exposing that corruption ( among other thing ). If your paper, your owners and your co-workers are corrupt then maybe you should be investigating them and not publishing lies about others.

    3. Get out of politics. Being a mouth piece of a political party is not journalism, I see it as corruption, but at the very least its not honourable in a democracy.

    4. Just report the news.

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  6. Well said, Neville. I'm only two years into our trade and all my work has been with digital and broadcast media outlets, but I do agree that tabloid and 'populist' journalism has a future. Or rather, it does if it is willing to change enough. Keep the faith.

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  7. The tabloid press has long been twisted and distorted. We hardly need an enquiry to tell us that.

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  8. The tabloids are journalistic cancer. They do "take down" the occasional bad guy, but mostly leave a trail of ruin and pain in good people. They're not selective in whom they effect.

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  9. Ha ha, Neville, we certainly do not need a tabloid (gutter) press.

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  10. I am an ex-tabloid hack but couldn't stand the bullying so quit. I recognise the culture and the personalities you describe. I worked for an executive who made my life hell. It was a passive aggressive kind of hell, characterised by endless interference, unnecessary criticism, rebukes and tellings off. I am a sensitive soul and it undermined my confidence and mental health. And yet I never officially complained, never sought redress and no one at work noticed the effect it was having on me as I became withdrawn and sullen. Until eventually I could bear it no more.
    There is an implicit understanding on Fleet Street that to rise up against bosses is career suicide. Once you leave one paper under a cloud, the chances are you won't get a job elsewhere.
    And because many hacks work independently, as well as competitively, the bonds are not as strong as they need to be between them.
    In short it can be a lonely, private hell.
    As the cuts have worsened - the old 'more with less' chestnut - speaking out is even less likely as hacks vie to keep hold of what little job security they can. And sadly it's not necessarily even the most talented ones that stay in jobs. Much of the time it is those who are content to shit on others, to ignore suffering, to adhere to the twisted mantras of bosses, that 'get on'. In short, the wankers tend to prevail.
    Without proper root and branch reform across the industry, there is little hope of any real change in management style.
    For the Leveson Inquiry to work it has to recognise that fact and do something about it.

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  11. Good piece Nev ...brings back a few memories espcially the bogus disiplinaries
    BB

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  12. Excellent blog, but I think you're off-target in your specific criticism of Lord Justice Leveson.

    Newsroom procedures vary from paper to paper. In more "ethical" surroundings than the NoW, not only chief reporters but the humblest of juniors are routinely consulted/informed about changes, additions, subtractions and "policy" decisions relating to their copy.

    I worked for around 25 years on regional titles of various shades and must say I was as baffled as Leveson by the seeming lack of personal interest displayed by so many of the inquiry's red-top witnesses (yourself included, I'm afraid) in the treatment given to stories published under their by-line.

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  13. Not sure why Sid James deserves a disparaging reference - the man, as apposed to some of the roles he played, was perfectly admirable. I suppose NT is one of those people who would attack a soap star on the basis of who s/he portrayed on the box. One would expect better of a journalist, but then he did work for the NOTW

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  14. Newsroom thuggery has been an open secret for many years - as anyone who's read Private Eye, Stick It Up Your Punter or L?ve TV will tell you.

    I always suspected the public would run away screaming if they actually realised what sort of creature ran their newspapers, and I was right. The sort of behaviour the likes of (censored for legal reasons) get up to would, in any case, merit a good punching from most right thinking people. I often wonder if brutalised hacks are less able to empathise with others, a sort of Stockholm Syndrome.

    As for 'relevance', why not send some hacks off to the conflicts and disasters covered by Unreported World on Channel 4? If reporting from the Mindanao Islands war zone is good enough for Peter Oborne, it's good enough for the red tops.

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  15. Neville, Congratulations! You've sure turned over a new leaf in the New Year. You make the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus look pale in comparison.

    The principles you now espouse; be kind to employees, be charitable to publicans with weaknesses, tell the truth not spin and be honest in all your dealings, are the total opposite of Grub Street's tabloids, who give every impression of being willing to sell their mothers into white slavery for five grand in readies.

    Happily the unconverted neanderthal, Kelvin Mackenzie, will be on public display on Monday. Fingers crossed he'll make an even bigger fool of himself than Piers Moron did.

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  16. The bullying culture you describe of course comes as no surprise from a leadership so gutless it offers up its troops to save their own skin.

    I agree with Neville Thurlbeck and Matt Pringle's comments about the content of tabloids. They have been stuck in era of Profumo and Keeler for nearly half a century.

    Even the backwoods of the Tory backbenches have long abandoned the sort of sanctimonious moralising that still persists in tabloids.

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  17. Sorry if it appears I disparaged the late, great Sid James. A great comic hero of mine. But a little politically incorrect so I though he fitted the 'gag'. I was thinking of Reg Varney but I thought that would fall on deaf ears these days!

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  18. Neville -

    I reckon that the tabloids stopped being actual newspapers for years now.

    Murdoch realised that the loss-making of the Times, The Sun etc could be easily offset by the influence they could wield over the law.

    Murdoch hasn't paid any tax in the UK for years, so he offsets these losses anyway, and then he's left with a huge propaganda machine which he uses to influence law-makers so that he can make more money from his other businesses.

    simples!

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  19. Neville,

    You're spot on with your take on newsroom culture. It is grim. Let's hope the Leveson Inquiry will take a good look at how newspaper journalists are treated by their bosses and employers.

    I have seen people treated appallingly both in the national press - where I now work - and in the regional press where I had my grounding in journalism. I don't imagine radio or TV is as bad though I'm open to correction on this. Neither do I imagine employers in other industrial sectors are as bad.

    The reasons for such appalling behaviour in newsrooms are many and could comprise:

    1) The perverse attitude among many senior executives of what an independent press actually means. They don't like to be told what should or should not be in their papers. This is fair enough.
    But this attitude percolates down to the way they treat their staff and the reading public. How dare anyone tell senior executives how to behave, even if decently.

    2) The failure of newspaper culture to move into the modern age. The fraught days of hot metal are gone but too many dinosaurs and attitudes from that age remain. In the 70s and 80s too many proprietors spent a lot of efforts crushing the unions but the bosses are still in that attack mode. Now their focus is staff. That attitude is too prevalent among senior executives whose job it is to set the standard of newsroom behaviour.

    3) The culture of success at any cost. It is remarkable how many senior people cannot see that upsetting readers is bad for sales. OK, you can't please all the people all the time but equally you don't have to annoy all the people all the time either. Too many bosses are only too happy to shaft members of the public for a story - and recruit the kind of reporters who will do this. They forget the old adage 'newspapers need friends'.

    4) The poor state generally of leadership and management standards in the UK. Sadly newspapers are the worse offenders among a pretty poor bunch of companies.

    5) The Wapping 'retreat to the hills' factor. Newspapers everywhere - and not just News Corp - appear to produced in bunkers isolated from the general public. At least people knew where to find a journalist when Fleet Street reigned supreme.
    Today we have cut ourselves off and live in offices in industrial estates. This lack of connection to the public means senior executives have no mental reference point when weighing up stories or dealing with staff.

    6) The long hours culture. There are too many senior news robots working long hours and who fail to grasp what it is to be human. They are cut off from life as lived by most people in the UK and their sense of perspective is warped by never leaving the newsroom.
    A long-day is fair enough when a disaster strikes, war breaks out or on Budget day but working 14 to 16 hours a day as routine is madness unless you are the Editor. And expecting journalists lower down in the ranks to do the same hours for poor pay is just wrong-headed.

    7) Drug and alcohol abuse. Too many of us rely on drink as a crutch, others rely on drugs. We are hypocrites when we point the finger at the public over their excesses.

    POC

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  20. Interesting thoughts...

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  21. Some of the practices described would be unheard of in a tv or radio newsroom. Thankfully, the unions are still able to prevent the kind of bullying and threatening behaviour by management in broadcasting..being heavily regulated however means everything has to be COMPLIED which brings a different set of difficulties. Leveson has a monumental task not helped by the fact that he has little understanding of the job of a journalist, tabloid or otherwise. Newsroom culture is insular and competitive and we all become institutionalised wherever we work...it's far easier to fit in and survive than take a stand and go down. It's the worst kind of fear, preyed on by ruthless execs..they're paid large amounts to keep you in your place.

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  22. Sid James was honourable in real life?

    " During his marriage to Valerie he had a well publicised affair with his Carry On co-star, Barbara Windsor, which was documented in the 1998 stage-play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick and its 2000 television adaptation Cor, Blimey!. James's obsession with Barbara Windsor was such that it led to his returning home one day to find that all of the furniture had been rearranged, and on another that her husband of the time, Ronnie Knight, had put an axe in his floor.[6]
    James was an inveterate gambler, and a largely unsuccessful one, losing tens of thousands of pounds over his lifetime. His gambling addiction was such that he had an agreement with his agent, Michael Sullivan, whereby his wife did not know how much he was being paid, with a portion set aside for gambling.[6]"

    Erm...

    Great post Neville.

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  23. Shabby Tabloid journalism put me dearest friend to death, as a result of a red top expose, one that was completely fabricated. I myself am a barrister, my departed friend was ruined by a supposed kiss and tell rent boy. Not so, he was and is no rent boy, he, the victim of childhood prostition, is in fact nothing more than a wanton thug. Father of three illegitimate offspring. The "story" was obtained by means of a payment, some £500 was offered. In order that a falsehood could be established. There were no photographs, no witnesses, no DNA no substance at all. Just sign here, News International. It was The Sun!! Time indeed to bring this to the attention of Levenson. The Sun is rotten and was rotten to it's core. NI are disgusting, shut it all down.

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  24. Very interesting piece coming, as it does, from a former News of the World heavyweight. It's servves a timely warts and all, adapt or die, warning from an insider. But it will take a long time - and much work - to repair the damage caused to the reputation of all journalists in the eye of the reader - not just those working for tabloids - by what happened.
    Still, I'm amazed at how the Screws and its staffers are carryibg the phone hacking can, while many serial offenders have seemingly got off unscathed.

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  25. the levenson enquiry is one big joke from start to finish,

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  26. He might say the same about your spelling :-)

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  27. Neville

    Your comment about Reg Varney is applicable to the under 35s in the UK. I agree with Matt Pringle, the tabloids have made themselves irrelevant to a large section of the community in their endless competition on a daily basis with magazines such as Hello.
    Wake up, look in the mirror and change to become relevant

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