Brian Cathcart: The Media’s Conspiracy Of Silence

(Guardian) – WHEN THE BANKS SCREWED-UP, heads had to roll – the headline writers made that clear. When government ministers get in a pickle, reporters harass them until they quit. When a local authority makes a mess of its childcare, or an NHS hospital botches operations, the leader writers decree that someone must pay. Even John Terry obeys the rule: heaven forbid that the youth of England should have a philandering role model.

But when our national press is exposed as not fit for purpose – as it was by MPs last week in relation to the McCann case, among other scandals – those journalists and editors somehow don’t feel the same. So there wasn’t room on the front page of the Sun last week to howl for the resignation of, to name but one, Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express. Nor on the front of the Daily Mirror. Nor the Daily Mail. And certainly not the Express or the Daily Star.

Not on the inside pages either, where the coverage of the report by the Commons select committee on the media displayed the kind of restraint for which, a year or so ago, Kate and Gerry McCann would have been grateful. So restrained were most of these papers, in fact, that their readers might be forgiven for not knowing about the report at all.

The committee (to which I acted as adviser) totted up the hundreds, yes hundreds, of untrue, made-up articles about the McCann case for which papers had to pay up and make apologies. It noted these were only a sample from an even wider pool of falsehoods, and it quoted Gerry McCann and Hill in agreement that the couple could have sued every newspaper group, and won.

This was a total breakdown of sense and judgment, an orgy of irresponsible journalism of a kind not seen in decades, yet editors never held an inquiry of their own and the Press Complaints Commission waited nearly a year before uttering a word of admonition. It still hasn’t seen fit to investigate what went wrong.

In one of the merrier moments of the MPs’ inquiry, Hill was asked whether anyone at the Express had been disciplined or reprimanded. He replied, with a straight face: “I have reprimanded myself.” And now that the MPs have laid bare the whole ghastly mess, the editors bury the story on page 94 if they mention it at all.

This isn’t just hypocrisy. It is corruption and abuse of power. There is no morality at all in papers that bleat about freedom of speech every time they lose a libel or privacy case, but then hide all the ugly truths about themselves. And it is even worse than it appears. You may think that they do this because they are all in the same boat and must sink or swim together. No, they do the same even when only one of them is sinking. It is the honour code of thieves.

Look at the muted response to the MPs’ verdict on the News of the World. This is the country’s biggest selling newspaper, a venerable 167 years old. You might even say it has a claim, like Terry, to be a sort of role model.

Its executives claimed that only one staff reporter had been involved in phone-hacking despite the huge payouts and extraordinary gagging orders apparently designed to ensure evidence that it was widespread never became public. These articulate, canny men remained the three wise monkeys: Stuart Kuttner, managing editor (retired), heard no evil; Tom Crone, legal boss, saw no evil, and Colin Myler, editor, spoke no evil.

MPs condemned the paper’s collective amnesia, its persistent obfuscation and its payments to convicted phone-hackers, and they found inconceivable the paper’s central assertion in its own defence. This was damning stuff.

So, did Myler receive the Fred the Shred treatment? Did the rest of the popular press frantically demand that he be stripped of the captaincy? Did they cast him out as a leper from their midst?

Not a bit of it. The Daily Mirror’s only media story that day was on page 14. It said: “Mirror is up for 10 gongs”. The Mail concentrated on the committee’s (very important) conclusions about libel, but spared a box for the news that “Coulson escapes criticism”, a brave piece of positive spin.

As for the Sun, sister paper to the accused, it told its readers that the whole inquiry was a wicked Labour plot to smear the said Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, now adviser to David Cameron and, so far as this scandal is concerned, another wise monkey with impaired powers of perception. Talk about denial. Can the boys at the Sun not smell the foul odour from the office next door? Are they not curious about what is causing it?

As for party-political: of the 578 paragraphs of the report, only one provoked a division along party political lines, and it added nothing to the allegations against the NotW. Put it another way: all three Tories on the committee, including the chairman, signed up to every one of those conclusions about amnesia, obfuscation and inconceivable claims.

If this report paints the popular press in a bad light, the coverage of the report makes it look even worse. The majority of British newspaper readers have either had the truth hidden from them or been cynically misled. Will the PCC do anything about this? Of course not.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University and was specialist adviser to the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport for its inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel, 2008-10.

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