news of the world

How we got here…

Leveson is the seventh large-scale inquiry into the press since the Second World War.

So let's pause for a moment to recall the surge in ethical conduct displayed by the crazier end of our industry as a result of the previous six.


Much like a serial cheater, or domestic abuser, each time the leaders of our street of shame are caught, they are ashamed, humbled. They promise change. Next time, it'll be different. 

So we give them one last chance. And six months later we've been smacked in the face again.

If you believe some papers, any change in regulation will turn the British press into some kind of Soviet-era hell. Our freedoms lost, our papers full of heroic tractor production figures.

So it's perhaps worth remembering how we got here.

Some newspapers developed a side industry, routinely hacking into people's mobile phones, listening to their private messages.

Some of their targets, undoubtedly, were bad people doing bad things. Others were completely ordinary, their only sin to blunder temporarily into the public eye.

The people who listened to their messages, poking around in their private lives, drew no moral distinctions. Criminals, footballers, politicians, murdered schoolgirls

All were just good sources of copy.

And we, in a way, encouraged this. We kept buying newspapers filled with salacious non-news, often obtained through such shady means.

Some of the newspapers who now issue apocalyptic warnings about press freedom used to do these things, daily. If they didn't do them directly, they hired other people to do it for them.

And the regulator that was supposed to protect against such things instead argued these things were not happening. There was no scandal, beyond the actions of a rogue individual. The regulator in fact criticised those journalists trying to highlight the scandal.

The police didn't bother to investigate. Partly because it was scared of the press, partly because some officers had developed very cosy relationships with the same newspapers.

Our political leaders didn't bother to investigate. Because no-one who challenged the press could expect to win power.

When caught out, the papers would offer cash in return for silence. And then carry on trawling through people's private lives, in the hope of another pointless story.

And now, finally, we have a chance to do something.

Who is actually arguing for state control of the press? This nightmare scenario is the invention of newsrooms at The Sun and Mail. No one with any credibility is suggesting a Cromwell-style licensing of newspapers.

Any regulation of press standards must be independent, both of the state and proprietors. Nothing else is likely to get through parliament.

People who prostitute their private lives to the press to boost their careers have little right to demand privacy when such attention becomes inconvenient, and it's true that harsh restrictions on the press would best serve the corrupt and powerful.

But the press has had endless chances to make self-regulation work. It never has. And in order to believe it would work any better in the future, you'd have to trust the word of people who've lied to us for years.

The News of the World exposed countless scandals, broke many newsworthy stories. It was not destroyed by that tradition of hard, popular, public interest journalism.

We desperately need more of that kind of journalism. And it's possible that by raising our sights from the gutter so many papers currently choose to inhabit, we might just get a little more journalism we can be proud of.