Leveson told of tabloid 'omerta' on 'life-wrecking stories'

Former tabloid reporter Richard Peppiatt lay down the gauntlet to the assembled editors at the Leveson Inquiry seminar this morning with a wide-ranging attack on the ethics of the industry.

Most of the UK’s national newspaper editors gathered at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster for a discussion about the competitive nature of newsroom culture.

Peppiatt said of the 900 newspaper stories he had written for the Daily Star over a two-year-period: ‘I can probably count on my fingers and toes the amount that were telling the truth.”

He said: ‘The job of the journalist is about finding the facts to fit the story”, adding: ‘The newspaper appoints itself as moral arbiter and you must stamp their world view on the news.”

He added: ‘This ideological imperative is bound to a commercial one – that it is easier to sell people something which reinforces their beliefs than it is to sell them one that challenges those beliefs.”

In a ten-minute presentation Peppiatt said: ‘If editors really had no idea that the life-wrecking stories they printed about the likes of Robert Murat and Chris Jefferies weren’t grossly libellous then reporters heads would have rolled. Of course they didn’t because an unspoken contract exists between newspaper and tabloid reporter.

‘You tell us what we want to hear and we won’t question too much the veracity of that information or your methods.

‘If there is any comeback we will protect you. There is a code of omerta and if you want to get on you abide by it.’

He said that with fewer jobs in a declining newspaper industry, journalists find it difficult to stand up and walk out of the door: ‘Tabloid newsrooms operate in a bullying and aggressive environment where dissent is simply not tolerated.”

None of the four Express and Star editors were at the seminar but Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace, Sunday Mirror editor Tina Weaver, Mail on Sunday editor Peter Wright, Sun editor Dominic Mohan and People editor Lloyd Embley were there.

Embley and Wallace both said they didn’t recognise Peppiatt’s description of a tabloid newsroom.

Wright said: ‘We all serve a particular audience who have particular interests and particular expectations. You have to make a judgement about what the people who are likely to consume your news are likely to be interested in…To many people last night’s big football match is more important in their lives than the Eurozone.”

He added: ‘What is important is that you do this in a way that is balanced and is fair. I would take issue with Richard Peppiatt. I’ve worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years. There are tensions between editors and news editors on the one hand and reporters.

‘If you are an editor or a news editor you go home every night asking yourself why your reporters don’t come up with more stories and equally the reporters go home every night thinking somehow or other I didn’t make it work today and if I don’t make it work tomorrow they are going to fire me.

‘In fact that doesn’t happen. You do have to have to push and goad reporters but you also have to rein them in.’

Sun editor Mohan spoke up for celebrity journalism saying: ‘I don’t believe the Arab Spring had a particular effect on sales of the Times. To put it into context, when Michael Jackson died the Sun’s circulation increased by 326,000 copies. That is more than the daily paid-for circulation of The Guardian and The Independent put together I believe.

‘There is a public appetite for that kind of celebrity journalism. In terms of competitive pressures – the pressures that I feel under are very much my own professional pride to produce a good, fun, lively informative newspaper on a daily basis.”

Tony Gallagher, former head of news at the Daily Mail and now editor of the Daily Telegraph, said: ‘I don’t notice any huge difference between the culture of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. There is the desire to be quick and to be accurate and to ensure that you have a better version of the story.”

Sunday Times editor John Witherow said: ‘Over time I believe journalism is getting better. Reporters are more reliable and are held to account more by changes that are taking place in law and technology.

‘The fact that when you print something you are held to account very quickly by the internet is raising standards.”

But Peppiatt said later that he had spoken to journalists working in other newsrooms – including The Sun and Daily Mail.

He said: ‘It’s a problem for the whole industry. Your reporters feel that way but they feel unable to say it.”

  • To contact the Press Gazette news desk call 020 7936 6433 or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk

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