Watergate-Hackgate-Guardian debate

At the age of 67, almost 40 years after Watergate and 35 years after All the President’s Men, Carl Bernstein is still full of spark.

Speaking at the Guardian debate‘After Hacking: how can the press restore trust?’ – last night he was happy to re-assert the parallels between ‘Hackgate’ and Watergate (first laid out in his piece for Newsweek), to lay into Murdoch for “a sensibility that corrupted a free institution” and to lament the “cultural breakdown” that led to the widespread illegal gathering of personal information.

He was not, he said, one to append “-gate” whenever a new scandal broke. In fact, this was the first time he genuinely thought the comparison was real. In Watergate, criminals were working for the White House. In Hackgate, criminals were working for newspapers.

Much of his ire was directed towards Murdoch, who had “driven [the] lowest common denominator of journalism”, and led a diminution of journalistic standards. Though he did not exempt the public who, he believes, also bear some responsibility for willingly buying Murdoch’s papers.

Bernstein called for journalists to kick start a “cultural change” and hoped they would shame those who engaged in the dark practices revealed by the hacking scandal.

The discussion then broadened into how to bring about such a cultural change, with Bernstein vehemently disagreeing with others on the panel. George Eustice MP, for four years David Cameron’s press secretary, argued that the current system of self-regulation had to be strengthened and made more independent. Alan Rusbridger pointed out that, in the case of hacking, it was no good leaving it to the police who singularly failed to do anything. Nor was it any use leaving it to the self-regulator, who pretended to have the powers necessary to investigate.

Bernstein bristled at any talk of regulation. “This is the last slap of the dinosaur’s tail”, he said. News was going digital, and it was foolhardy to think you could regulate the digital environment, he argued. Any prior restraint of publishing, Bernstein thought, was inherently bad. At the same time he did approve of regulating media ownership, and recognised that people need some access to redress for gross intrusion or defamation. His approach to the latter would be some sort of small claims court or equivalent.

On the contrary, Eustice argued, journalists would be freed up by independent regulation. It could loosen the grip of journalism dictated from the top down. It could temper decisions made for purely commercial reasons. It would mean the editorial code could be enforced.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy (chairing) pressed Eustice on why politicians had not done anything about the overly cosy relationship before 2011. We tried, Eustice said, but failed. When he first worked with Cameron in opposition they decided they would not do what Blair and Campbell had done. They would not leap to the phone whenever there was a bad headline. They would try not to over-react to distorted or misleading coverage. They would not accept invitations to the Murdoch annual conference in Australia.

This lasted almost two years but was abandoned, Eustice said, in 2007. But now the spell over British public life has been broken, Rusbridger said, and for better or worse the system is in flux. The editor of The Guardian recognised that there were those who thought the waters would soon close back over and nothing would change, as there were those who feared a backlash against the press and overweening constraints.

We used to look across the channel with envy, remarked Sylvie Kauffmann, the executive editor of Le Monde: “Now I see I don’t have to be so jealous of you”. In France, Kauffmann said, the problem is reversed. It is not the journalists hacking the public, it is the security services hacking the journalists.

In all, an eclectic smorgasbord of debate about three different journalistic cultures – American, French and British. It was a shame that the one absent voice was the one many people would have wanted to hear from – the News Corporation culture that gave rise to phone hacking in the first place.