INTERVIEW: Writer, broadcaster, and presenter for Radio 4’s ‘The Media Show’, Steve Hewlett, talks about the hacking scandal, Leveson, the new press regulator and the ‘ambivalence’ of the British public to the tabloid press. Speaking to www.thejusticegap.com, Hewlett describes a decade or more of tabloid excess that many people came to regard as ‘out of order’.
‘I think people’s attitudes towards the tabloid press are ambivalent. We don’t like their intrusion, we don’t like it when they gang up on people, and we don’t like it when they’re perceived to be unfair. We certainly don’t like phone hacking because it looks to all the world that they’re willing to go to all lengths, legal or not, to get the stories. On the other hand, we quite like some of the things they do and we buy their papers still in our millions.’
Hewlett argues that the phone hacking scandal was ‘the straw that came to break the camel’s back’. Hewlett discusses whether IPSO (the Independent Press Standards Organisation, launched last month) is ‘what it appears to be’ and ‘whether the leopard has in fact changed its spots’. ‘Only time will tell,’ he says. The journalist argues that IPSO has ‘huge powers’ that the Press Complaints Commission never had – including being able to fine up to a million pounds, to investigate, to take third party complaints, and insist on the placement of adjudications.
Talking to www.thejusticegap.com in September, Dr Evan Harris of Hacked Off argued that unless there was an ‘external audit by the Royal Charter body’, both ‘independent’ of the industry and of politicians, ‘the public cannot have faith that IPSO isn’t just the PCC with lipstick.’ However, Hewlett warns that the problem with the Royal Charter is that it ‘looks and smells rather too like the State being involved’.
‘The first problem with the Royal Charter was that a Royal Charter is granted by the Privy Council on behalf of the Queen. Who are the Privy Council? They are senior current and former politicians, in other words, precisely the people that you want to keep as far away from press regulation as you possibly can. A big argument erupted about whether or not a recognition body, established by the Royal Charter was itself the beginning of state involvement in the regulation of the press.’
In terms of how the media deal with high profile cases, Hewlett argues that the Jimmy Savile case carries with it a very particular risk:
‘What happens if the public starts to think that the BBC that they’ve been brought up with, that they’ve loved – that they cherish, they regard as being theirs, suddenly starts to appear like an organisation that provided a front for this sort of activity? It’s quite corrosive.’
In 2010 Chris Jeffries was arrested in connection with the murder of Joanna Yates. Following this, Jeffries said he was ‘vilified’ by the media.
‘As a result of briefing by the police handing out tasty tit bits of information; the popular press formed the opinion that Jeffries was a serious contender for being guilty and, as we now know, they monstered him in the most extraordinary way. He has quite rightly been paid out very substantial damages in libel. He deserves a completely clean bill of health and, in fairness, most people now think he has got one.’
On investigative journalism, the journalist says: ‘I think of all good journalism as “investigative”. It’s not all naming the guilty people, it’s not all investigating wrong doing, but as a state of mind all good journalism is enquiring.’
‘My personal view is that you shouldn’t take anything, any public or private authority tells you simply at face value. It may turn out to be true but the starting point is let’s look at it. Organisations are made up of people, all of whom will – from time to time – have reasons not to be entirely straight forward. It’s incumbent on journalists to maintain that frame of mind. That’s the essential public service of journalism.’