Reporting the reporters: Interviews with the journalists who covered Leveson

The Leveson Inquiry saw British journalism subject to unprecedented public scrutiny over 97 days of public hearings.

Press Gazette asked the reporters who covered most of those hearings what it was like writing about their own industry – in some cases their own companies – and what they think is going to happen when Lord Justice Leveson publishes his report.

Ben Webster, The Times

What was it like reporting on your own industry in this way?

There were moments last autumn, in the inquiry’s first few weeks when we heard from the McCanns and Chris Jefferies when I felt ashamed to be a journalist.

But as the months wore on, and a succession of senior police officers and politicians gave self-serving evidence full of half-truths, I remembered why I became a journalist. Our job is to tell the untold truth; to expose hypocrisy; to probe the hidden motivations of those who make decisions which affect our lives.

I hope we emerge from Leveson stronger and more confident in what we do and why we do it. I now ask myself more searching questions when I am pursuing a story – is it really worth telling? Am I giving both sides of the story?

How would it look if every decision I made in the course of researching it and writing it were subjected to intense scrutiny? Hopefully, seeing so many talented colleagues placed on the rack in the past nine months has made me more aware of the pitfalls.

What for you as a reporter was the high point of covering the inquiry?

After sitting through so many cowed and sychophantic witnesses who were anxious not to upset the judge, it was wonderful entertainment watching Michael Gove take him on. Leveson had expertly picked holes in the arguments of dozens who appeared before him, but in Gove, he finally met his match.

What was your overall impression of it?

It was fascinating seeing my own industry under the microscope. We spend our working lives thinking up awkward questions to put to people and there were numerous very uncomfortable moments as the tables were turned.

However, it often felt like we were hearing too much of the case for the prosecution and not enough of the defence. Leveson kept saying he was not interested in who did what to whom, only in teasing out the broader issues. Yet several so-called victims were often allowed to make sweeping accusations without being properly challenged.

We could end up with an unbalanced report if Leveson tries to make general recommendations based on specific complaints which have not been sufficiently scrutinised.

He also should have taken more evidence about the ‘elephant in the room’: the anarchy of the internet. He got his fingers burnt trying to handle Guido. Perhaps that put him off summoning more bloggers.

What happens next?

Leveson should call the industry’s bluff and say he would like to see Lord Black’s plan for a contract-based regulator with fining and investigatory powers put into practice.

At present, we have stalemate: Leveson refusing to endorse the industry’s own plan and the industry using that refusal as an excuse not to press ahead by drawing up a detailed contract and asking all publishers to sign it.

Leveson could ensure historic change and lasting improvement in the way the press is regulated by encouraging the tougher form of self-regulation proposed by the industry and recommending a “Leveson Act” to mandate a new system if the industry fails to deliver its own plan.

Tom Harper, London Evening Standard

What were the biggest stories to emerge from the inquiry?

Murdoch Junior’s evidence was accompanied by most of the now-infamous Fred Michel emails and texts which, at the time, seemed potentially very damaging to the Government. They appeared to suggest an inappropriate relationship between News Corp and senior levels of the Conservative Party, which some political commentators thought had the capacity to bring down the Coalition.

However, the Government breathed easier when later witnesses suggested Michel was exaggerating his influence over Whitehall to impress his superiors.

Rupert Murdoch’s appearance was extraordinary as he dumped on very senior people in his organisation in a way that may still leave them open to criminal prosecutions. He admitted there was a “cover-up” of phone-hacking at News International and mentioned one or two people whose names I probably should not repeat.

Jeremy Hunt was the politician most damaged by the Inquiry due to the emails and texts between his office and Fred Michel. At the lunch break during his evidence, I remember all the journalists thought he was toast when it emerged he sent a congratulatory text message to James Murdoch the day Vince Cable was removed from presiding over News Corp’s controversial £8bn BSkyB bid.

Hours before he was put in charge of the takeover, he texted something like: “Great… just Ofcom to go.” But the afternoon’s evidence – which covered his conduct AFTER he actually took control of the bid – was uneventful.

His evidence clearly showed he gave misleading statements to Parliament but Hunt argued this was a mistake rather than anything more sinister and he survived when Cameron decided not to refer him to ministerial watchdogs 25 minutes after he finished his testimony.

What will happen next?

I think pretty much all the witnesses with any knowledge of the press have told Leveson he has an impossible job. Trying to govern the freedom of the press is one of those impossible areas of public life where no end result seems satisfactory; a bit like the ‘right-to-die’ issue. No one wants to see the atrocities visited upon the McCanns, the Dowlers or Chris Jefferies happen to anyone else, ever again.

But restricting what is often the only avenue available to the British public to hold rich and powerful villains to account would be hugely damaging to democracy. I don’t think the Inquiry understands quite how constrained we are already, both legally and commercially.

Sky-high costs mean it is virtually impossible to even defend true stories in court so more and more papers are refusing to publish genuine stories of public interest, or settling and apologising for stories that are true but are too expensive to fight.

And last month’s furore over the naked Prince Harry pictures, a hugely lucrative property that were viewed online by millions around the world yet could not be published by newspapers, shows how the press is already in an impossible situation trying to compete in an anarchic digital world.”

Ross Hawkins, BBC

How did it feel to cover your own industry?

It’s not that unusual for the BBC to cover its own industry in this way. I’m a political correspondent but the BBC is often a subject of debate and comment, so the BBC often covers the BBC.

If you think about issues of license renewals, those often result in packages. The focus of the inquiry was on the press rather than on broadcasters so to an extent there wasn’t as much coverage as there might have been.

Where the BBC was mentioned, where the BBC appeared, where the BBC was criticised, the main thing was to cover it scrupulously.

What were the biggest stories to emerge from the Leveson Inquiry?

The most significant events were those that concerned the biggest political figures. They arranged the evidence so that, by the time Rupert Murdoch arrived, we’d heard lots of people who’d come to be critical of him. By the time David Cameron arrived we’d heard lots of criticism of him. There was a large amount of expectation built up.

A slightly different question is where were the news lines that told us things we didn’t previously know. In a way, the main thrust for those came from the Fred Michel texts and emails, which came out of News Corporation. That then led to this story about Jeremy Hunt and the special advisor, which was new to us.

We didn’t know it before and it had an impact so it was that story that was the biggest moment; where what was happening at the Leveson Inquiry had a big impact on the outside political world. When Jeremy Hunt turned up, political futures were at stake.

What stories were most interesting to the public?

It waxed and waned not on how far we were along the inquiry but on how big and important the witnesses were and what the stories were. You got an idea of audience reaction – some days were much bigger than others but it wasn’t necessarily on how far through we were. There was a huge amount of interest from the start with the victims.

We had some extraordinary stories that will stick in the public’s mind. On the days on which they had academics, which was no doubt useful for the inquiry, those weren’t days when we had a fascinated audience.

What will happen next?

We’ve actually got quite a strong idea from the politicians on where they’d like to see things go and I’m sure the Government would like to come up with some political consensus. I think Ed Miliband’s suggestion that there could in essence be market share limitations – i.e. the sort of action that could compel Rupert Murdoch to sell off newspaper titles – would make it difficult.

In essence, we’re slightly in the dark. We don’t know what Lord Justice Leveson will propose. We don’t know how much legislation that will require. We don’t know the extent to which it will seep into other very complex areas – like, for example, libel reform.

We do know, in terms of what will happen next, that the newspaper industry, via the Lord Black submission, has laid on a new level for the PCC, which would no longer be called the PCC. That has almost put a minimum base under the amount of change. There will be at least as much change – I’m certain – as is proposed in that press industry proposal. We will definitely see the PCC going.

The only question is what will we see in terms of its replacement and how much more action will Leveson propose and the politicians and the media industry concede that they need to act and can see how far they need to go beyond that proposal? So big changes are coming – what we’re not really in a position to judge is how much the industry delivers on its own and how much will come from external forces.

Dan Sabbagh, The Guardian

How well was the Leveson Inquiry run?

It had its good moments and it had its bad moments but overall I think it was diligently run. It had to dance around the complex issues with regards to the arrests and charging of News of the World executives and so on.
They were at their best when handling the ethical and legal issues newspapers face.

They were very smart about their sequencing, so they were very built up in terms of the prosecution – with Hugh Grant and the Dowlers early on, and then the editors to explain themselves and then the top politicians for a grandstand finish.

Did they cover all the waterfront? I think they struggled and didn’t try very hard to understand the economics of the business and some of the financial pressures. I’m not quite sure they understood the craft of journalism – just what it’s like in the newsroom. But they were not there to take an insider’s view – they were there to take an outsider’s view.

I think they were there to say: ‘Look, you’ve hit the buffers as an industry. You’re in the dock in the public imagination. Your self-regulatory structure doesn’t work and you need to pull your socks up.’ They captured that, I think.

What were the biggest stories?

Rebekah Brooks was the most popular. When I reflect on it, there were so many moments of insight or importance and it is very hard to pick out key aspects.

For me, the simple most important fact of the inquiry was its existence and I think to have all these powerful people from all walks of the public life come before this environment to give an account of themselves was incredibly valuable.

Too many editors hide in the corner of an office and don’t give an account of what they do. And they should. And we had politicians – David Cameron, Tony Blair – and their relationships with the Murdochs and other news organisations. It was incredibly important.

The relationship between editors, media owners and top politicians needs to be known about in a democracy. And these sorts of things were not discussed in public and there it was under a light. Accountability all round was incredibly important. I think in the newspaper industry too many believe that if you are an editor or a media owner you are somehow immune from the public domain. And I think the inquiry allowed an honest and fair debate.

What will happen now?

You’ve got a PCC-plus model on the table and I think Leveson is not very enamoured of that. I don’t know if that’s a goer. I think the judge is going to recommend something stiffer than the model on offer. I do think he understands that he can’t go too far but he’s clearly going to propose something that is different to what the industry have proposed.  We have a sceptical judge and we will get a sceptical report.

James Tapsfield, Press Association

What were the best stories to emerge from the Leveson Inquiry?

It’s hard to think of anything more dramatic politically than the Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron stories. The first two just really set the scene for the prime minister by reading things like his text messages – that was definitely the high point for me. For politics that was the biggest thing.

For the public, the most interesting was probably the litany of celebrities appearing, really laying into various newspapers and journalists. That was fascinating to watch.

How well was the inquiry handled?

It was certainly forensic. They didn’t bow to much in the way of salacious news and took things in a very dry, chronological way. It will be interesting to see how Leveson digests things, because there was such a huge amount of evidence.

In terms of the actual way we covered it, it was very well run. I’ve never been to anything quite like it in that they set up this whole annexe outside and they had a running transcript. It was quite difficult to cover in one or two ways, though. For instance, they weren’t handing out documents at the same time as they’d be discussing them in the inquiry.

So they’d be discussing a document and asking questions of a witness and at the same time that document would be on a separate screen. They had three or four screens in the annex – three on the inquiry and then a picture of the document that they were talking about and then the running transcript on another page. So you were trying to take down the document at the same time as you were trying to listen to people being questioned.

What will happen now?

He has sort of suggested he is not interested in an Ofcom-style regulation system. He’s hinted he’s looking at some kind of statutory underpinning of a regulator but it’s very difficult to tell which way he’s going to jump. Once he’s done that it’s going to have to go to a very political process where several difficult decisions will have to be made by the Government – especially if they reject some of his options.
 

MORE ON THIS STORY : 

Tags: 

Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.