Coming just hours apart, two events have revealed everything we need to know about the lack of accountability of the British corporate press and the corruption and damage it causes.
First the Daily Mail published at the bottom of page two a ‘clarification’ which, when read carefully, revealed that another of its front-page stories designed to crank up hatred towards Muslims was no better than a fiction.
And then we learned that the Murdoch papers have escaped, or at least delayed, a civil trial for breaching people’s rights, apparently by the simple means of throwing money at the problem.
These people – the owners and managers of the Mail and the Sun – do whatever they like in Britain. They are answerable to nobody – not the public, not the law and certainly not any kind of meaningful regulation. The very worst that can happen to them is that they have to dip into their billionaire pockets to make trouble go away.
And of course they are not accountable to the rest of the news media, as (you would like to think) anyone else would be. Instead they can count on something resembling a code of omertà in their industry. Their own papers are unlikely ever to mention their crimes and their failures; as for the rest – the supposed rivals in the press and the broadcasters – they tend to look the other way.
The Mail correction was a familiar mockery of the idea of correction and apology. It came more than a month after a front-page lead story under the headline ‘Another human rights fiasco!’ which claimed in tones of outrage that an Iraqi had been granted unjustified compensation after time in the custody of British troops. Here was a story that fitted the Mail agendas of attacking Muslims, Arabs, the Human Rights Act and judges, all in one.
Now the Mail has presented a very different 400-word narrative in which the person involved was blameless and clearly merited compensation for his treatment. This appeared under the words ‘Clarifications and corrections’ at the bottom of page two of the paper. The nearest the paper came to contrition was the words at the end: ‘We apologise if any contrary impression was formed’ – as if it were dealing with an accidental misunderstanding.
This is the richest and best-resourced newspaper in the country. It can afford to check its facts, especially when those ‘facts’ are going on the front page, but it did not do so. And this is not by any means the first instance of such reckless disregard for truth.
But there is nothing to stop the Mail behaving like this. No matter how many times it prints front-page lies its tame ‘regulator’, IPSO, will either look the other way or do something inadequate. There will be no front-page corrections for front-page errors. There will be no investigations. There will be no fines. And in consequence no lessons will be learned and you may be sure that another false front page will be served up shortly.
Meanwhile the Murdoch papers, run by Rebekah Brooks, have settled at the door of the court four civil claims by victims of hacking that were to be at the centre of a six-week public trial. At the heart of these claims were allegations of phone-hacking by the Sun (hitherto denied by the Murdoch management) and of various other illegal activities. Some allegations implicated Brooks and James Murdoch.
Of course the company is within its rights to offer as much as it likes to these claimants and they are to be congratulated on securing adequate compensation. But the effect is to prevent or at least defer the public hearing of these very serious allegations.
This is directly contrary to the public interest but it is vivid proof of what the great wealth of newspaper proprietors can achieve.
They are simply not answerable for what they and their employees do to ordinary citizens. Their staff can lie and cheat and steal private information and whip up hatred against vulnerable people – with impunity.
There is one way to stop it, one workable remedy: implement the Leveson reforms and proceed with part two of the Leveson inquiry, which is designed to address exactly the problems of corruption and bad management that these two events expose.
Thanks to a vote in the House of Lords these matters will soon come before the Commons to be debated. If at that stage the Leveson remedy is rejected we will know that these organisations and their bosses are beyond the reach even of Parliament.