by Máire Messenger Davies
David Yelland, former editor of the Sun, gave the first Leveson anniversary lecture in London on 29th November 2013.1 In it he argued that, in resisting regulation, newspapers are in denial about their own power, and that, to remedy the ‘reputational disaster’ that has befallen journalism, they need to accept the Leveson proposals. He gave a number of telling examples of what’s wrong with the press from his own experience.
Hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness
These are the qualities of which Yelland accuses the British popular press. But what came across to me most strongly from his self-deprecating and thoughtful lecture, was a quality that most people don’t associate with the ‘attack dog’ tabloids: feebleness. What he gave us was a portrait of a press not, as they like to present themselves, as fearless champions of unfettered free speech, but as a crowd of timid conformists, terrified of breaking ranks, or of disagreeing with their editors, even when their editors were self-evidently wrong. Yelland gave an example of this from his own editorship of the Sun, when he published a front page picture of a nearly-topless Sophie Wessex, praised by all his staff the previous night, and excoriated by his staff the next day, when the PCC (on a rare occasion when it made a difference to the behaviour of tabloid editors) told him he was out of order. His staff knew he’d get into trouble, but none dared to tell him in time to prevent the mistake from happening. Afterwards, of course, they all distanced themselves from him.
Certainly Yelland itemized instances of toughness, or as we might prefer to call it, ‘bullying’, primarily on the part of editors, and he did not exempt his earlier self from this charge. In particular he cited the frequent attempts to terrorise and intimidate those who dared to criticise the press, with Hacked Off and its celebrity supporters, such as Hugh Grant (who was in the audience), coming in for particular vilification. Yelland recalled how the Daily Mail had devoted 12 pages (as he noted, not even a royal baby gets that much coverage) to rubbishing Sir David Bell’s reputation, because he had been appointed as a Leveson Assessor. This was despite the fact that Bell, as a life-long journalist, former news editor, managing editor and chairman of the Financial Times, was sympathetic to the press’s cause. Said Yelland: ”The Mail’s purpose was clear: the story was pitched at anyone else who might dare to question its position. And it worked. I know at least one senior editor who has declined to break ranks because of what happened to Bell.”2
Shiny shoes syndrome
But for me, Yelland’s most telling story was one that didn’t appear in the Guardian, or in other reports of the talk. He described how, when he worked at The Sun, both as a reporter and then Editor, every man in the office wore shiny, lace-up shoes because it was believed that Rupert Murdoch wanted them to. Cue astonished giggles from the audience. However, that wasn’t the punch line. The punch line was that, apparently, Murdoch had never laid down an edict, or even expressed an opinion, about his male staff’s shoes. It was enough that these men (or perhaps it would be more accurate to call them mice) believed that he had. And they internalized this belief, and acted accordingly.
A nice example of the internalized modeling of bosses’ bullying popped up on Twitter almost immediately after news of Yelland’s talk appeared. Here is Neil Wallis, former Deputy Editor of News of the World, still in his ‘mustn’t-upset-the-bosses’ mode:
Poor terrified drunk David Yelland, nice but dim, Blair’s tragic poodle: Press misleading says ex-Sun editor http://t.co/j8ACUaOA7o
— Neil Wallis (@neilwallis1) November 29, 2013
You could not ask for a better instance of the wimpish cult described by Yelland. Wallis’s pseudo-macho tweet is an excellent example of the lad not wanting to break ranks with the big boys – you can almost hear the sub-text, ‘are you listening Rebekah, are you listening Rupert?’ In exchanges on Twitter with, among others, Westminster University’s Steven Barnett, Wallis accused Yelland of ‘betrayal.’ Given that Wallis’s former employer, the News of the World, was summarily closed by Rupert Murdoch, as a result of the criminal activities of Wallis’s colleagues, four of whom have pleaded guilty to phone hacking, it seems surprising that Wallis still hasn’t worked out who really did the betraying. 3 More than one commentator has described this culture as ‘omerta’ – slavish minions blindly conforming to the presumed wishes of their leader, along the lines of the Mafia. This may have a certain Soprano-like glamour but it’s hardly a model to promote confidence in the press as champions of freedom.
The role of media academics
There is a curious view among some pro-tabloid tweeters that people who haven’t worked in the media, such as mere readers, or who no longer work there, and have committed the unforgiveable sin of becoming media academics (such as myself), have forfeited any right to comment on the press. A character called ‘Tabloid Troll’, Twitter name ‘@Vivalatabloidranting,’ is particularly prone to this line of attack. According to Troll, you can only comment on Leveson issues if you’ve worked in a tabloid newsroom. But when someone who has worked in a tabloid newsroom, such as Yelland, ventures to criticize, he too is vilified. The mythical mystique of the newsroom, incomprehensible to outsiders, has also been invoked by a non-tabloid journalist, Nick Cohen writing in The Spectator:
As a rule, media studies professors are to working journalists what astrologers are to astronomers. They do not understand what we do and they can’t do what we do. . . Almost every media professor has egged on Leveson and the politicians, and called for the reintroduction of state regulation of the press – last seen in England in 1695. It is as if law professors were demanding the return of Star Chamber.4
Goldsmiths’ Professor James Curran demonstrated who, in fact was speaking moonshine (Cohen), and who knew what they were talking about (himself), in a letter to the Guardian:
This absurd claim [‘end of 300 years of press freedom’] implies that we had a free press in 1790 when criticism of the social system was a criminal offence, and guilt or innocence could be determined solely by a judge. It suggests that we had a free press in 1850 when the stamp, advertisement and paper duties were still fixed to price newspapers beyond the reach of ordinary people. . . This distortion helps to explain why, according to the 2010 Eurobarometer survey, the British public was the least disposed to trust its press, out of a total of 27 European countries.5
The problem for journalistic commentators such as Cohen and TT is that, retreating to a ‘we know best because we work in newsrooms’ position simply won’t wash any more. For a start, if nobody is allowed to criticize any organization unless they’ve worked in it, that puts paid to journalists criticizing social workers, teachers, doctors, trade unionists, or indeed politicians. But also, thanks to the massive expertise that can now be found, not only in academic studies of the press, but on Twitter and in the blogosphere, the ‘we are the experts’ hype can be instantly rebutted. Another member of the Leveson lecture audience was writer Peter Jukes, whose tweets from the Old Bailey during the trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and their colleagues, have provided a rigorously factual running report on what was happening in the court, almost moment by moment. Jukes has made media history by having his time in the court paid for by crowd funding from his thousands of Twitter followers. These followers are people who reject Cohen’s and Tabloid Troll’s self-interested ‘ranting’ and who realize that, in the case of the hacking trials, much of the press aren’t going to report the story at all. Yelland, too, pointed out that the problem isn’t only what the press does report – the story is often about what it fails to report, the years-long hacking saga, reported almost exclusively by The Guardian, being a case in point.
Whether they are mad or just lack self-awareness, the fact is editors and proprietors in this country see themselves as the small guy, the powerless man struggling against the establishment. What they fail to grasp is that they have become the establishment themselves. They are the powerful, and others are the weak.
Powerful? Well, up to a point Lord Copper, as another memorable exposé of the world of journalism once put it. But, as I’ve noted, an abiding impression of tabloid newsrooms from David Yelland’s account is not one of strength, but of weakness and fear. Despite all the vilification, the press critics, such as those in Hacked Off, are not going to back off, and the full story of what has led to the ‘reputational disaster’ of British journalism, is yet to be completely told. We await the outcome of the Old Bailey trials and of the inquiry into the murder of Daniel Morgan, whose tenacious brother Alastair was also among those listening to Yelland. He and his fellow campaigners against deceit, bullying and corruption are the truly tough ones.
Máire Messenger Davies, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Ulster, was a victim of phone-hacking.
1 Organised by Article19, campaigning for free expression, and the Media Standards Trust at the Free Word Centre, Farringdon St, London.
2 Guardian 29/11/13
3 For further analysis of this murky world, see Anthony Barnett’s article in Open Democracy, 4th May 2012, ‘Murdoch and the Big Lie’