Rusbridger condemns Fleet Street's 'daily monstering' of BBC and calls for debate over payments to sources

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger last night condemned Fleet Street's "daily monstering" of the BBC and News UK's decision to hand over confidential sources to the police.

He also spoke of the importance of journalism and urged editors to have the confidence to embrace new technology.

Rusbridger began the Society of Editors conference in London by delivering the annual lecture, held last night at Stationers' Hall.

Talking about his new "distant" view of Fleet Street, he said: "It produces some of the most exceptional journalism in the world – aggressive, unflinching, searching, stylish, funny, erudite, plain speaking, independent. And, if we’re honest, it produces some exceptionally awful journalism."

He defended The Guardian's coverage of the hacking scandal, which prompted the closure of the News of the World, saying to ignore it would have required a conversation with reporter Nick Davies which went: "I know that’s a terrific story, and were it about any other industry I’d run it in the blink of an eye. But I must ask you to stop asking these questions and forget what you know.

"What a betrayal of journalism that would have been. And what a betrayal of the foot soldiers within the News of the World who were the ones feeding Nick his information precisely because they so hated having to do what the culture of that particular organisation at that particular time demanded of them."

But he condemned News International's (now News UK) reaction to the news in July 2011 that its journalists had listened to the voicemails of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

"A newspaper was closed in a panic. And then, in a piece of wild over-compensation, a newspaper management broke the one sacred law to which we all subscribe and handed over all its sources to the police."

Since 2011 more than 30 public officials have been convicted as a result of News International's actions, with most given jail terms.

Talking about the "article of faith" in the Fleet Street "club" that the ensuing Leveson Inquiry was an "utterly terrible thing", he said: "I’m not sure it was – though there have certainly been bad consequences as well as good."

He said he believed that "we cleaned up our act and that Fleet Street is a better place as a result".

But he condemned the legal legacy of Leveson which comes into force next month.

Under the Royal Charter on press regulation, and the Crime and Courts Act, publishers who are not members of an officially-recognised press regulator will face the threat of exemplary damages in privacy and libel cases. Once a press regulator has the approval of Royal Charter-backed Press Recognition Panel, news publishers who sit outside this body could have to pay both side's legal costs in libel cases that they win.

Rusbridger said: "The whole system of carrots and sticks – intended as an incentive to signing up – did not win the backing of any practising media lawyer I know."

On the issue of the 29 tabloid reporters charged – and two convicted – in recent years with paying public officials, Rusbridger said: "I’m glad juries didn’t want to convict reporters for doing what the culture of some newsrooms demanded of them. But I guess we all feel uneasy at the sight of our sources going to jail because we paid them while the managements which sanctioned the cash denied all knowledge.

"I know some colleagues defend the right to pay people, including public servants, for stories. I wonder whether we shouldn’t be having a wider and franker discussion about that now."

He said the "greatest scandal of all" in recent years was the police use of surveillance powers to find journalists' sources.

"It was only when – accidentally – it transpired that two Fleet Street reporters had had their phone records searched in order to uncover their contacts that our industry pushed back and managed to get a form of concession out of the government… 

"All credit to Bob [Satchwell's] vigilance at the Society of Editors and to [Press Gazette editor] Dominic Ponsford’s vigorous Save Our Sources campaign."

Following the Save Our Sources campaign the Government changed the law earlier this year to ensure that police requests to view journalists' phone records, in order to find their sources, must be approved by a judge. But the law is only a temporary stop-gap, and it has emerged that forces have already flouted it.

Rusbridger condemned press coverage of the debate over press regulation, saying: "Earnest academics who offered to help us think through the problem were repelled as press-hating interferers. We became convinced that 300 years of press freedom in this country were about to be brought to an end by a charmingly raffish character actor."

And he singled out the Daily Mail's decision to devote a front page and much of its news section in November 2012 to an attack on one of Leveson's official assessors, David Bell, who is also chairman of the Media Standards Trust, a body which has been critical of the press and has links with Hacked Off.

"Eleven whole pages of a single edition of one national paper – count them – were devoted to trying to prove that a decent, mild-mannered former FT executive, one of Lord Leveson’s assessors, was in fact a sinister Svengali figure hell bent on destroying all the liberties for which our forefathers had died. That was the strangest single issue of any newspaper I think I can remember.

"The assault on the hapless David Bell was symptomatic of how some of the press had decided to play the post-Leveson period. This was not a debate – one in which it was possible, or even desirable, to engage with a number of different people and organisations who were, mainly, trying to arrive at a reasonable solution. It was a form of war. You were with us or you were against us. The normal rules of journalism were suspended."

On current coverage of the BBC, he said: "The BBC is being treated to a daily monstering that feels at times disproportionate and obsessive – never mind the multiple undeclared conflicts of interest

"In whose interests – apart from politicians and other centres of power which deserve to be scrutinised – is it to have a cowed BBC? I’m actually amazed it’s not more cowed. Imagine if, on a newspaper, a mistake of the sort that most of us make in our careers led to a full-scale judicial inquiry. The editor and chairman sacked. A thousand headlines, millions of pounds in costs.

"If any newspaper survived such attention at all the subsequent culture would surely be one of extreme back covering and caution. That would be only human.

"It’s something of a miracle that the BBC, under such scrutiny and attack on a continuous basis, is still capable of producing robust, independent journalism. I would sometimes like it to be still more brave and still more independent – but that’s another story."

Rusbridger concluded with a statement about the importance of journalism and a plea for the industry to serve the public interest.

"I think of good journalists as being as essential to healthy societies as the police or clean water. We can see all around us in the world today what happens when journalism is suppressed and reporters persecuted.

"But let’s have confidence in what we do. Let’s root our journalism in a common idea and tradition of genuine public interest. Let’s be open to our readers and to evolving technologies. Let’s harness the tectonic movements around us, not be fearful of them."

Read Alan Rusbridger's Society of Editor's lecture in full.

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 × 3 =

CLOSE
CLOSE