‘This is becoming an anti-tabloid witch-hunt’
Read the transcript of CBC’s interview with Brendan O’Neill about Leveson, lies and press freedom.
At the end of last year, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill was interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about the phone-hacking scandal and anti-tabloid campaigning. An edited transcript of the interview is published below.
Jian Ghomeshi: As the Leveson Inquiry continues its investigations into the British press in the wake of the tabloid phone-hacking scandals there, an unusual event has occurred at one of the UK’s most respected papers. [In December] the Guardian newspaper issued a retraction for 37 of its stories relating to the inquiry, each containing the claim that journalists for the now-shattered News of the World newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International deleted voicemail messages on the phone belonging to Milly Dowler in order to make room for new ones. She was a 13-year-old British girl who went missing in 2002 and was later found to have been murdered.
Since the deletion of Milly Dowler’s voicemails gave rise to the hope that she was still alive, the allegation that phone-hacking journalists were to blame galvanised opinion against the tabloids in the UK.
Except the Metropolitan Police say it’s now unlikely that the News of the World was responsible for deleting Dowler’s voicemail messages. That’s got at least one journalist speaking out against the Guardian’s reporting about the tabloids and questioning what the Leveson Inquiry’s investigation into journalistic practices could ultimately mean for press freedom in the UK. Brendan O’Neill is an outspoken journalist who has in the past written for the Guardian, as well as other British and American publications. He’s the editor of the online publication spiked and has written a piece for spiked about the news coverage of the News of the World affair. We’ve reached Brendan O’Neill in Dublin today. Hello sir.
Brendan O’Neill: Hello.
Jian Ghomeshi: The Guardian has been a go-to source about the hacking scandal and went forward in July last year with the story about the News of the World being responsible for deleting Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages. Why was this a case of misreporting?
Brendan O’Neill: Because, according to the Metropolitan Police, it now is probably not true that the News of the World deleted those messages. It seems to be the case that they hacked into Milly Dowler’s phone and listened to the messages. But one of the key parts of the Guardian exposé was the idea that they also deleted those messages. And the reason that’s an important part of the story is because it was that which gave false hope to Milly Dowler’s parents. It was the deletion of messages which made her parents think she might still be alive when in fact she had already been murdered. So it was a real turning-point revelation in really upping public fury with the News of the World. The fact that it now seems to be untrue is an embarrassment for the Guardian and really calls into question a lot of the claims that are being made about hacking at the tabloid newspapers.
JG: What led the Guardian to report that first version of events?
BON: I think that something quite ironic is happening, which is that in the name of exposing unethical practices at the tabloids, lots of broadsheets are now engaging in some unethical journalism of their own. They are rushing to report things that haven’t been fully fact-checked, which haven’t been thoroughly interrogated and proven. And they’re putting these kinds of stories on their front pages.
The revelations about Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages – this is the third time that the Guardian has had to apologise for something it said about the News of the World and which turned out not to be true. So if you include the 37 articles that they’ve had to apologise for in relation to Milly’s voicemails, and you add to it the other articles they’ve had to apologise for, there are now 39 articles published by the Guardian which it has had to either retract, correct or clarify.
I think there’s a great irony here where we’re talking about how scummy and irresponsible and stupid the tabloids are, but at the same time some journalists in the respectable broadsheets are indulging in some pretty dodgy journalism of their own.
JG: Exposing a respectable broadsheet, as you call the Guardian, or taking it to task, is one thing. But why are you defending the tabloids? Let’s get to your article for spiked. It’s called ‘The truth about anti-tabloid hysteria’ and it takes the mainstream British press to task for attacking the tabloid press. It’s a rare journalist who will stand up for the tabloids. Tell me why you’re doing so.
BON: I’m no great defender of the News of the World; I’m certainly not a defender of their phone-hacking tactics, most of which were just pointless and a waste of time and very intrusive. However, there are two problems with what I call the ‘witch hunting’ of the tabloids.
The first is that it is driven by an age-old British snobbery against mass newspapers. For the past 100 years, since mass newspapers were first introduced, there have always been elements of the aristocracy and the respectable classes who have hated the tabloids, who look upon them as poisonous and blame them for making the public stupid. There has been a really sneering attitude towards tabloid newspapers. And that’s coming through again very strongly in the phone-hacking debate.
And the second reason I’m worried is just because of press freedom. It seems to me that the Leveson Inquiry is going to give rise to a situation where we have more regulations and more controls on what newspapers can do and what they can report. Even though it will be aimed primarily at the tabloid newspapers, and everyone will think ‘oh it doesn’t matter because they just report tittle tattle anyway’, the fact is that it’s going to have a wider impact than that and it could impact upon the standing of journalism itself and the freedom of journalists to report and uncover what they believe to be important.
JG: Let me take the first half of what you just said, about the ‘witch hunting of the tabloids’. You do, in your piece, compare the Leveson Inquiry to the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials. Are those comparisons appropriate in your view?
BON: They are appropriate on the level that unfounded accusations are being made. Of course there is a massive difference in scale between Salem and McCarthyism; and there is also a massive difference in scale between McCarthyism and the anti-Murdoch obsession. But what is similar is that when you have a climate which is fuelled by disgust and a desire to expose people and a hunt for ‘evil’… when you get caught up in that kind of climate, it becomes quite easy to start making unfounded accusations. To start buying into rumours. To start believing that people are actually more wicked than they really are.
I think what this has in common with earlier witch hunts is that it has become a slightly unhinged, irresponsible pointing of the finger at anyone we deem to be evil and wicked.
JG: Do you see the Leveson Inquiry uncovering anything of value? Shouldn’t these actions be investigated?
BON: To the extent that some News of the World journalists – and it was a minority – broke the law, they ought to be investigated by the police. But I think the problem with the Leveson Inquiry is that everything is being lumped together. So we’ve had discussions about the problem of ‘blagging’, where journalists phone up an institution and blag someone’s records or blag some information. The Leveson Inquiry has also talked about the problem of journalists following people and keeping an eye on people and monitoring people. So what’s happening is that actually quite respectable forms of journalism – the pursuit of a story, blagging, keeping a tab on someone in the public eye – all these things are perfectly respectable in my view and yet they are all being demonised as part of this process of exposing phone-hacking.
So the danger is they are going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we’re going to criminalise respectable forms of journalism in the name of shutting down Murdoch’s newspapers and everyone is going to suffer as a result of that.
JG: Should there be no inquiry?
BON: I believe the inquiry should be scrapped. I don’t think it’s particularly useful. In fact, it’s ending up as a showtrial of the tabloids, cleverly disguised as a year-long legal inquiry. What we have here are celebrities and broadsheet journalists and other people with an axe to grind coming to tell their stories, to explain how horrible the tabloids are and to call for more regulation of them. The judgement has already been made. The tabloids have already been found guilty and this is just a drawn-out process where we’re going to have expressions of public hysteria about tabloid culture which is going to end up with a proposal for more regulation of press freedom.
JG: You’ve talked about the fact that there are other ‘dubious’ claims – as you’ve called them – by the Guardian, for which they’ve had to issue apologies. I should mention that we did go to the Guardian for comment on your opinions and they have declined to speak to us today. We spoke to Thais Portilho-Shrimpton who works for the group Hacked Off, which campaigned for this inquiry. Here’s a bit of what she had to say to us:
Thais Portilho-Shrimpton: Some people are saying these are all lies because that line in the Guardian story was wrong but people should still remember that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked and that’s a fact confirmed by the police and by the Metropolitan Police at the Leveson Inquiry. It is a fact that her phone was hacked by a News of the World journalist – or journalists – and that some messages were deleted but not the ones that caused the false hope; they couldn’t say either yes or no to that. That is a point that needs to be clarified.
JG: So, Brendan, how do you respond to what you just heard? Are you being too quick to condemn the Guardian for a simple reporting error when there are clearly many other parts of the story that do seem accurate. The phone was hacked by the News of the World.
BON: It’s definitely true, as I said earlier, that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked and that was wrong and bad and anyone who is found to have done that could be charged with an offence. But it’s more than a simple reporting error on the part of the Guardian, and also this isn’t just about the Guardian – the other broadsheets are running with the phone-hacking story with great relish and so is the BBC. That it’s more than a simple reporting error is demonstrated by the fact that the Guardian has had to clarify 37 articles. If this was a simple error, why was it repeated in 37 articles? The reason it was repeated in 37 articles is that it was actually a key part of the accusations made against the News of the World. It was a key thing that stirred up public antagonism against Murdoch’s papers because people were shocked that journalists may actually have deleted a murdered girl’s voicemail messages. That’s why it was repeated so often and so frequently. So it’s more than simple reporting, it’s become bound up with a kind of crusade against what’s seen as evil tabloid journalists.
And once you cross the line from journalism and rational objective reporting into crusading against evil, you are going to start making unfounded accusations.
JG: Thais Portilho-Shrimpton also made the point to us that the Guardian did immediately apologise and correct all of the stories relating to the News of the World journalists deleting emails. What more do you want them to do? What more should the Guardian be doing?
BON: It’s not for me to say what the Guardian should do! They should do whatever they want to do. But I think it would be worth all journalists in Britain, all broadsheet journalists and respectable journalists, asking themselves what is behind this campaign against tabloid journalists which is now being joined by politicians, by reporters, by activists, by celebrities. There is a huge group of very influential people with clout who are campaigning tooth-and-nail against tabloid culture and for the closing down of the News of the World, which they successfully achieved. Ask yourself why is this happening, what’s going on here? Is it really straightforward reporting of a problematic story, or has it become a bizarre kind of crusade against what are seen as ‘lower’ forms of journalism?
JG: You’re not the only one criticising the Guardian for its reporting error; many of the Guardian’s critics are from rival newspapers. Is it possible some of these critics have an agenda as well?
BON: Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that. For example the Sun, which is a daily tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, has been quite happy with the fact that the Guardian has been embarrassed and has been exposed. So there are a lot of special interests and agendas flying around in this discussion. There’s no doubt about that. What I’m saying is we should realise that the campaign against Murdoch’s newspapers is also driven by its own agendas – whether it’s by celebrities who have been waiting a very long time to get their own back on the tabloids that exposed them in the past, or whether it’s the BBC which is eternally worried by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB institution and his move into television. There are lots of agendas in the anti-hacking scandal as well and we shouldn’t take that at face value as being a pure and moral and virtuous campaign.
JG: On that note, towards the end of your piece you write ‘the line between their job as reporters and their emotions as despisers of mass newspapers has become dangerously blurred’. Are you not playing into the same emotional tone here by assuming that the mainstream newspapers are out for tabloid blood?
BON: There is a lot of evidence to suggest that they are. If you read a lot of the coverage of the tabloids in the broadsheets over the past year, you will see that there has been a lot of intemperate, sometimes quite hysterical, coverage of how Rupert Murdoch runs British politics, for example, which I think is a vast exaggeration of his influence. How newspapers warp people’s brains and make them vote for parties that don’t really represent their interests. How these newspapers have dumbed down public culture, made Britain more stupid. There has been a real sense in some of the coverage that you have this strange, swaggering Australian man coming to Britain, buying up these tabloid newspapers and The Times, turning them into horrible rags and poisoning our previously pristine culture with his backward Australian values.
That is the underlying tone to lots of the coverage. So, I do think it’s safe to say that there are lots of people in Britain who hate the tabloids. Now, as it happens, I’m not a massive fan of the tabloids – although I like one or two of the columnists in the Sun. But what I’m saying is that if you believe in press freedom, true press freedom, then you have to accept that there should be space not only for respectable, decent journalism but also for tittle tattle, for gossip, for newspapers that people enjoy reading on the bus ride to work. What I’m saying is that press freedom must encompass all publications and not just those that the chattering classes find agreeable.
JG: Brendan O’Neill, I thank you very much for this today.
The above is a transcript of an interview with Brendan O’Neill, aired on the Q show on CBC radio on 22 December 2011. Listen to the interview here.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.