Roy Greenslade on hacking, Leveson, Murdoch, the local press and dissidents

After a break of a decade, Roy Greenslade was back talking at Féile an Phobail on Thursday lunchtime, lecturing in the Falls Road library about the built up to and impact of the Leveson Inquiry.

Mark Simpson Roy GreensladeMark Simpson introduced the journalist, ex-editor, commentator, academic and wearer of braces who has written for every national paper in London and who splits his time between Donegal and Brighton.

He spoke for around 35 minutes before taking questions from an audience seeded with characters from the local press and media. He also stood up at a lectern and didn’t use the mic, so the recording at times is a little distant. (The three parts can be and a separate interview can be downloaded.)

Greenslade started by grounding his talk in the issue of London reporting of Irish stories.

When I was last here I spoke about how newspapers in England have never treated Ireland very well [and] I spoke about their tame reliance on official sources (and about bias), and the influence of the police on journalists (and bias), and the failure to investigate collusion (and bias) and the acceptance of secret service dirty tricks without too much trouble. Did I mention bias?

And so it is no surprise – I think to us – that these newspapers that were willing to do that when dealing with this particular part of the world should have got themselves into trouble. And that is exactly what phone hacking has done.

Initially allegations of phone hacking had been batted away as the work of “one rogue reporter”, a stance backed up by the Metropolitan Police. But the news that the Dowler’s phone had been hacked accelerated events over the next seven days.

Greenslade went on to walk through the timeline of denials, resignations, shutdowns, leading up to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry and a multitude of police investigations. To avoid contempt of court and out of a desire that people deserved a fair trial while he listed those who had been arrested, he avoided talking about their specific alleged actions.

At two points he did wryly reflect that there was an irony to members of the press fearing that they might not get a fair trial due to press coverage, and also that an ex-spy (Ian Hurst/Martin Ingram, a local Leveson connection) should complain about intrusion.

He expressed his respect for Lord Justice Leveson and his team of inquisitors. There was a touch of mirth as he explained:

… the Commons Select Committee realised that they’d be lied to. And MPs absolutely hate that because as you know they’re all very straight.

What caused – or contributed to – the scandalous actions of the journalists and papers?

Let me just move on to how this extraordinary state of affairs first came about. Overarching everything is the inescapable fact that London-based national press – about twenty titles – have been in an intense rival situation throughout their existence. And that’s unlike anywhere in the world. There’s nowhere else in the world that has that kind of national press concentrated in one place, all fighting each other. And they fight each other to get higher audiences, or better quality audiences sometimes, in order to exert cultural, social, political and commercial influence.

And the second inescapable truth is that all of them are losing sales at a fast rate. Advertising revenue fallen off a cliff because of the recession. Sales generally down. Migration to the internet.

It would be unfair, or at least too simplistic, to say that this dire commercial reality is the reason for hacking. But of course it’s played quite a role. I think owners – but particularly Murdoch (because of the way his company is run) – have been willing to turn a blind eye to what actually goes on as long as sales, and therefore profits, can be maximised.

One of my students – and needless to say, she got a very high mark – in her end of term essay said: “most ethical dilemmas in the media are a struggle between conscience and revenue” in which of course revenue general wins out.

In Greenslade’s experience and observation, the most appreciated reports were one who pulled off stunts for stories, including one who put a microphone into a prostitute’s teddy bear in order to catch a politician’s dalliance.

With the hearings complete – minus any investigation of the phone hacking that triggered the inquiry – Lord Justice Leveson aims to report in October. Greenslade quips: “You might say he’s a faster writer than Saville!”

Though Greenslade reckons Leveson is wary of too much regulation is will pay attention to fears about press freedom.

Questions from the audience included one about “Boris cosying up to Murdoch”, yielding the conclusion from Greenslade that “Murdock is a busted flush” and won’t regain his political power.

Danny Morrison talked about all the Word documents on his PC being emptied, but not deleted, two years ago. [Ed – a Word macro virus perchance?] Another older lady in the audience remembered her West Belfast phone being bugged and callers complaining that they’d been put through to the Army first.

Was hacking really confined to News International? Greenslade: no. Given the flow of journalists between papers, hacking is unlikely to have stopped when people moved jobs. As a last resort, Greenslade said he would hack or engage in subterfuge if the ‘public interest’ deserved it. If prosecuted,

Mark Simpson concluded the event asking what kind of press there would be in ten years time? Greenslade reckoned a lot fewer papers, though noted that online entities don’t yet generate enough income to be properly staffed. This chimed with an earlier comment in his lecture, fearing the loss of local press, praising startups and hyperlocals, but doubting the economics and current funding models.

Interviewed afterwards before jumping in a taxi to go to the BBC, Greenslade said that the Leveson Inquiry “has been worthwhile and Lord Justice Leveson and his team have made it worthwhile”, citing many facts and victims that came to light through the inquiry.

How did he assess the performance of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee as interrogators and searchers for truth?

My feeling about the Commons Select Committee was that they initially didn’t’ do too well but I thought the report in 2009 in which they said “it’s not credible for News International to continue saying that it was one rogue reporter” was really important. And I think on that committee I would praise the chairman John Whittingdale, certainly Tom Watson, at stages Louise Mensch and a Welsh MP in the first sitting. These people did try I think and get at the truth.

I don’t think the Commons Select Committee system is good enough. I think too many of the questions are scattergun, and they don’t seem to have a logic to them. But, overall, I think given the constraints that they have, given that people are not on oath when they appear there, I think they did as well as could have been expected.

The hacking affair will not end with Leveson’s report, nor with the implementation of its recommendations.

What really counts is what we’re going to discover when people go to court. What evidence the police have that we don’t know about. And also having those people in the box, answering questions about their behaviour. I think that’s enormously important.

And I think Leveson realises that he’ll never probably deal with hacking per se, but that doesn’t mean his recommendations about how we regulate the press won’t have a resonance. I don’t necessarily think that the government will implement them because the other part of this story is that it’s not in Lord Justice Leveson’s gift as to what happens. It is totally within the Prime Minister’s gift.

The cosy establishment tie-up between News International, the senior Metropolitan policemen, and the offices of the Prime Minister, that’s over … Certainly I think it means that Rupert Murdoch and News International are a busted flush in terms of being able to pull strings especially with the police and possibly with politicians.

What does Greenslade make of the local press in Northern Ireland?

I think that the local press is still vibrant, still living, but it’s also suffering. Suffering from a lack of income and revenue, suffering from falling sales, suffering from people migrating to the net whether they’re chasing adverts or they’re looking for information.

I think there are great papers here. I absolutely love the Impartial Reporter, for instance. I applaud their hard work done by a very small team at the Derry Journal.

But I look at the figures and the trend tells me that it’s remorselessly down. The chances of the survival of some of the local papers and even possibly a regional paper. Look at the Belfast Telegraph doing very, very poorly. News Letter scraping along. Irish News now suffering from falling sales. This is a pretty grim outlook that we all have.

As a resident in Donegal with his ear to the ground, what did Greenslade make of recent dissident rebranding and regrouping?

I noted those stories. Very sad situation. I think these groups have needed to unite because they’re so small and so irrelevant, so marginal but at the same time carry potential danger within them. But I think it just shows that they are politically moribund. They’ve been completely edged aside by what they would see as compromised establishment politics, mainstream politics , politics per se. In fact politics has wiped them out.

But I look at the voting figures. I see what Sinn Fein get, and I think to myself: that’s the party that counts, none of these dissidents matter at all.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.