Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Hacking 'not result of pressure', says former News of the World editor Phil Hall

The phone hacking scandal cannot be blamed on pressure to produce big stories, a former News of the World editor said today.
Phil Hall, who edited the now-defunct paper from 1995 to 2000, told a seminar for the Leveson Inquiry that competitive pressures on newspapers had not led to a drop in standards.

He said phone hacking had not come about because of pressure for big stories but because a group of people had "indulged in illegal activity" and the checks and balances that should have been in place had failed.

The (first) seminar, held at the QE2 Conference Centre in Westminster, is the first in a series of discussions held as part of the inquiry into media ethics and phone hacking.

The session, called The Competitive Pressures on the Press and the Impact on Journalism, included a brief presentation from Mr Hall, as well as former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt, and Claire Enders, from research and consultancy company Enders Analysis.

Mr Hall told the seminar, which included representatives from across the media, that he was never under pressure from owner Rupert Murdoch to boost the circulation figures of the News of the World.

"There was no pressure to achieve the unachievable," he said. "The pressure was to deliver a great campaigning newspaper."

Mr Hall told the seminar a "publish and be damned" attitude had "long been confined to the history books of Fleet Street" and the idea that editors were pushing for big stories to boost circulation figures was "simplistic".

"Some of our biggest stories - the Jeffrey Archer case, for example - delivered no increase in circulation," he said.

"Yes, we broke big stories but it was not the be all and end all of the operation."

He said pressures felt by reporters were due to "personal and professional pride".

"As an editor I did demand high standards and I did expect journalists to produce agenda-setting stories. Is that any different to a business leader in any other industry?

"Those who suggest and imply that phone hacking has arisen because of the pressures to deliver big stories are in my view wrong.

"It has happened because a group of people have indulged in illegal activity and the checks and balances that should have been in place in any newsroom, or any business for that matter, have failed."

Mr Hall said in his experience most journalists were professional and their stories were accurate.
"My experience is that 99% of journalists do act professionally - they are impartial, thorough and work within the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) Code of Conduct. And the vast majority of stories are accurate."

But he said the PCC had become "invisible", adding: "The PCC needs more clarity, more clout in what it does, and more visibility when it does act."

But Richard Peppiatt, who resigned from the Daily Star earlier this year over what he claimed was an Islamophobic news agenda, said newsrooms were "bullying and aggressive environments".

He claimed stories were often pre-planned, with reporters expected to get facts to fit in with the story.

"Tabloid newsrooms are often bullying and aggressive environments in which dissent is often not tolerated.

"The question is not, 'do you have a story on X', the question is 'today we are saying this about X, make it appear so'."

He said newspapers create a "feeding frenzy" around major crimes or stories, citing the Madeleine McCann and Joanna Yeates cases.

In an open discussion after the presentations, some editors questioned Mr Peppiatt's claims.
Richard Wallace, editor of the Daily Mirror, said he did not recognise the description of national newspaper newsrooms.

There was also agreement with Mr Hall, that commercial pressures had not led to a drop in standards.

Ian MacGregor, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, said: "I don't think anyone here would ever make an excuse that commercial pressures are changing the way we operate in terms of our integrity."

Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher told the seminar: "There's a desire to be quick, there's a desire to be accurate, there's a desire to ensure you have got the best version of the story."

Press Association editor Jonathan Grun said: "All of us want to be first with a story but, first of all, all of us want to be sure that the story is right."

In a second seminar, on the Rights and Responsibilities of the Press, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger discussed the importance of a free press.

"When people talk about licensing journalists the answer should be to look at history," he said.

He encouraged the inquiry to remember "how the freedoms won here became a model for much of the rest of the world", and "how the world still watches us to see how we protect those freedoms".

Trevor Kavanagh, former political editor of The Sun and now an associate editor, said: "Without free speech we cannot have a free society, once lost it would be almost impossible to restore."

He said it was in the public interest for newspapers to be able to assess the character of national figures.

"If people are seeking our votes or our cash, it is surely right that we should know if they are masquerading as someone they are not."

He said editors, sub editors and reporters knew the PCC code of conduct by heart, adding: "Sometimes they make mistakes but considering the number of stories and the number of headlines, not that many."

Mr Kavanagh said despite criticisms by some, the tabloids "drive the daily news agenda".

"Publishing news is not a public service, it is a ferociously competitive industry in a rapidly shrinking market," he said.

But he said it did provide a public service, turning complicated issues into "crisp, easily understood copy".

Mr Kavanagh said despite some flaws, the media was a "force for good", and said "gagging the media on the pretext of the public interest is one means of ensuring the public never learns the answer".

Brian Cathcart, founder of the Hacked Off campaign, told the seminar: "The existence of this inquiry is proof of a failure of public trust in journalism.

"Not just a failure of trust in one newspaper but in large parts of the industry and in its ethical standards and the mechanisms that uphold it."

He said the industry needed to show that ethical discussions were held about stories in the newsroom, in a bid to restore public trust.

In a discussion on Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs) - no win, no fee cases - Mark Lewis, solicitor for the family of Milly Dowler, said they were an important tool.

"Everybody knows that they should not have hacked Milly Dowler's phone, everybody knows the cases that have come out in the last couple of days," he said.

"That is nothing to do with ethical considerations, it is to do with access to justice so people are able to fight back, to defend themselves by pursuing a claim."

Richard Caseby, former managing editor at the Sunday Times and now managing editor at The Sun, said the PCC Code was a "good code", that all Sun journalists signed up to.

"It's a good code, it's a very workable code," he said. "I think during the last year or so it could have done with much stronger leadership, but it's a good code and very, very many journalists adhere to it."

Lord Justice Leveson said the seminars had achieved what they set out to do, creating a "broad and open discussion of a number of important issues".

A third seminar, called Approaches to Regulation - supporting a free press and high standards, will be held next Wednesday, with speakers including former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, and Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail.

Responding to Mr Peppiatt's comments, Daily Star editor Dawn Neesom said: "Express Newspapers totally refute Richard Peppiatt's version of life on the Daily Star. This freelance, junior reporter has painted a picture of a tabloid newsroom that exists only in his imagination. For the record, he was never employed on the staff.

"I am very proud of the Daily Star's small, young and talented team of journalists who work extremely hard to bring in genuine stories. They do not deserve these lies and smears. The Daily Star always has and always will abide by the Editors' Code of Practice.

"Mr Peppiatt has repeatedly admitted fabricating stories. This was his own choice of behaviour. At no point has he ever been asked or encouraged by Daily Star staff to fabricate stories.

"British newspaper journalism is still full of good, decent, hardworking people whose reputations are being tarnished by a few."

The Independent, by Ellen Branagh

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