Organised by the Media Standards Trust and Article 19 at the Free Word Centre, Farringdon, London
Full text of the keynote speech by David Yelland, former editor of The Sun
It is almost exactly eleven years ago since I left The Sun’s office for the last time and handed the paper over to Rebekah Wade, as she then was, and began a long period of re-entry into the human race.
I am someone who dreamed of being a journalist from a very young age. I cannot remember a time, growing up, when I did not dream that dream.
I got my first break aged 21 as a graduate trainee on a weekly paper and 13 years later I was editor of The Sun. I still love newspapers, but I have been happily out of the industry almost as long as I was in it. So much has happened since I left that it is difficult to know where to start.
But I thought I would start with this: British journalism and British journalists are the very best in the world. Newspapers as varied as The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, their Sunday counterparts, and The Economist – and many others – are the greatest of their kind in the world.
This is true, too, of broadcast journalists: of the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Sky. Whatever else this country may or may not do it does produce very good journalists. But you wouldn’t think it. Not at the moment. Nearly all my friends still in the industry are utterly depressed.
Such is the total reputational disaster that has befallen journalism in this country that it has almost become assumed that the newspaper business is heading for the rocks.
But I think there is great cause for hope; hope that journalists can succeed and prosper in the future.
But first – before the future can be embraced properly – the entire industry needs to do one or two things far better than it has been doing.
That is what I want to talk about today.
When I was asked to deliver this lecture – one year on from the publication of the Leveson Report – my first thought was that I must start off by emphasising that I can see all sides of the argument.
I can see the victims’ side because as a member of the Press Review Group working on the Media Standards Trust’s submission to Leveson, which we called ‘A Free and Accountable Media’, I spent time looking at precisely what happened to Kate and Gerry McCann, to Chris Jefferies, to Sally, Bob and Gemma Dowler and to others: an experience which will always stick with me and which was reinforced by what we later heard from the victims during the Leveson Inquiry itself.
I can also see the politicians’ side. It is very easy to condemn politicians and many people do and often with reason. But the politicians are in a difficult position themselves with no easy ways out.
I have personal experience of the relationship between red top editors and British Prime Ministers and I can see precisely how, if they are not careful, they can find themselves backed into corners in this critically important area.
I can sense the politicians’ fear too. I use that word advisedly. Be of no doubt, there is fear around all this subject. Fear is a very powerful force in these matters and it enwraps this entire debate, like fog on a winter’s day.
I can see the public’s side too. It is fashionable to assume the Great British public do not really care about all this Leveson malarky. We are told it is an inside the Beltway issue, something that only the metropolitan elite care about. I’m not so sure about this. If I learned anything editing popular newspapers it was that the public are a great deal wiser than the elite gives them credit to be. It may just be that the British see the role of the media in our body politic for what it is: One of the great political issues of our time.
So, I can see the victims’ side, the politicians’ side and the public’s side
What about the press’s side? Unlike many people in this room, I quite like journalists, including tabloid journalists; in fact some of my best friends are tabloid journalists. They are an essential part of our society. So I can very definitely see the journalists’ side in this great debate. I understand it, I can see it, but I’m afraid I don’t go along with it.
Let me use this lecture to try my best to explain.
So, where are we, one year on from Leveson? The answer is pretty clear: absolutely nowhere. The country finds itself in a morass, in a crazy place where facts don’t seem to matter anymore and where huge generalisations are repeated so many times that untruths almost seem truths.
What has happened is this: Sir Brian Leveson did a very good job, he did what he was asked to do by the Prime Minister, who had no choice but to act based on what he had seen.
Leveson listened, he went away, he set out his recommendations and they all hung together. They made sense. Let’s just remember what he said, because some of it has been misrepresented.
- A huge proportion of the press does a great job
- He said parts of the press ‘wreaked havoc in the lives of ordinary people’
- He concluded that the law isn’t adequate, by itself, to protect them (that is ordinary people.)
- And he said that the law is a blunt tool, difficult to prosecute in most media cases, and inaccessible to the vast majority of the public
Leveson went on to say that the public want – and deserve – a decent system of regulation that gives them access to fair redress when they’ve been abused.
At the same time, he said, politicians should not be allowed to interfere with the freedom of the press – indeed he said a free press should be protected – in law – from government interference.
Let us also remember why the Prime Minister set up the Leveson Inquiry in the first place. It was because the press had abused its power. Any fair minded person that watched the Leveson submissions must conclude that what we saw there were countless examples of the powerful bullying the weak.
We heard from, among many others:
- JK Rowling: She may be very rich, she may be very successful; but I found her evidence upsetting when I had to sit down and watch it as part of my MST work. Should journalists really have been trying to get information about her via her five-year-old daughter?
- There is the case of Abigail Witchalls: did Abigail Witchalls, stabbed and left permanently disabled while she was out pushing her 21-month-old child, deserve to have her private medical details published, namely that she was five weeks pregnant, a fact her and her family did not even know at the time?
- Then there was Kate and Gerry McCann: should they have had to prove, despite the absolute lack of any evidence, that they had not sold their three-year-old daughter into slavery to pay off their mortgage, as one paper claimed?
- And perhaps worse of all, in some ways, did Christopher Jefferies deserve to be falsely accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates and attacked and bullied by the press who were entirely wrongly convinced that he was guilty because – among other things – he was ‘weird’ and had a ‘love of poetry.’
Don’t get me wrong. I too made errors of judgement when I edited newspapers. I was, I think I can fairly suggest, a much softer editor than many – but I am not saying I am somehow better than all the editors who followed me. Indeed I will talk about some of my errors in this lecture.
I suppose, without labouring the point, that what I am saying is that I have learned in my life – in some of the experiences I have had since leaving newspapers – that it pays to have a little humility. Humility is not a characteristic we see much in the mass market press. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Anyway.
Let’s look at what have we seen in the last year. We have seen the politicians scurry around in this direction and that – some showing courage – some like rabbits in headlights. We have seen the rejection of Leveson by the press, a coming-together of the party leaders (when was the last time all three parties agreed on anything?), Parliamentary agreement on a Royal Charter, and the announcement by parts of the industry of their proposed new regulator, IPSO – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – of which more later.
First, I want to talk about bullying.
You see, the thing about big newspapers is they are very dangerous in the wrong hands. History has shown us that newspapers, especially mass market ones, can make small men big (and they mostly still are men). They can make small ideas big too – they can make them almost make sense.
Too often in some newspapers, if you shout the loudest you actually win the argument. Or appear to. And too often anyone who challenges the status quo is ejected from the group or sidelined. Indeed many newspapers remain dictatorships – not all of them but some of them. In newsrooms anyone who challenges the editor does not last long.
Newspapers are pyramid structures where what the editor says goes, where a nod or a wink from him or her can send the entire staff running in the direction of one story or away from another. On a newslist in a big newspaper all an item needs to make it big are the words ‘editor likes’ written in the news editor’s pencil above it or highlighted on his or her iPad.
This applies even more to proprietors, and I could tell you a legion of stories about how Rupert Murdoch’s alleged interests and/or dislikes influenced coverage. I have known many examples where the mere whim or even rumour of a whim from ‘on high‘ has influenced the culture of a newspaper, sometimes for years.
For example, there is the case of the black shiny shoes at The Sun. For years on the paper, both when I ran The Sun City page in 1989-91 and when I returned from the US in 1998 to edit the paper, everybody (or the men anyway) wore shiny black lace-up shoes and we all knew that this was because ‘Rupert liked shiny black lace-up shoes.’ They were like a uniform on the paper. Never brown. Never boots. Never slip-ons.
It was not until much later that I actually asked whether this was the case that I found there had never been such an edict in the first place: in other words this entire cultural norm had been based on a rumour or perhaps on off-the-cuff remark made years ago and long forgotten.
This pyramid structure, this dictatorial structure, has its advantages. It means newspapers can move quickly and turn on a sixpence. It means they can be dynamic and decisive. But it also puts immense power in one person’s hands and that power can be unfettered at least until the next day. I say that advisedly and based on experience. For when editors get it wrong you often only know about it when you come in the next day and nobody will meet your eyes; everybody is looking at the floor.
It happened to me in my early years when I ran a terrible front page ‘Sophie Topless’ in which we printed a near topless picture of the Countess of Wessex: I left the office that night with the staff almost cheering. By midnight the story was running on the midnight news on the BBC and people were calling for my head. You never forget an experience like that.
By breakfast time the BBC’s Royal Correspondent Nicholas Witchell was reporting from outside Buckingham Palace that I had actually been ‘called to the palace’’ which was not true but perhaps ought to have been.
Next day I had a number of colleagues ask why I did it. ‘But why didn’t you tell me yesterday?’ I said. ‘Not now. It is too late now!’ ‘You’re the boss,’ they said looking at me wide eyed, ‘Of course we didn’t say anything.’
That day I apologised both in the paper and privately via letter and learned a powerful lesson that the buck stopped with me and with me alone.
I felt like a child who had been given an air rifle and had shot dead a songbird. I should never have done it but until I saw the effect of the weapon in my charge I did not fully understand how dangerous it was.
I resolved that day that it would never happen again and by and large it did not. I was never PCC’ed again and if my critics think my paper was boring then this is why it was so. I felt something else as well: I felt a sense of shame. I was ashamed of myself and what I had become.
So when I criticise editors, as I am doing so from experience. I know what it is like to make mistakes and I know what it is like to do the right thing. I also know mistakes occur and editors do not see everything.
But those were very different days (I do not miss them either.) [By the way I am quite proud of my editorship but I am sharing with you today only my worst moments as I think that is the right thing to do.]
Which brings me to another front page. On November 16th last year the Daily Mail printed a 12 page attack on one individual, an individual hardly any of its readers would have heard of.
Under the headline ‘Leveson: Disturbing Questions over his Key Adviser’ the paper ran a whole series of articles about Sir David Bell, who – to remind you – was one of six assessors serving on the advisory panel for Leveson, and previous to that had been chairman of the Media Standards Trust.
Journalistically is it was brilliant. Brilliantly written. Brilliantly subbed. Brilliantly paced. Classic Daily Mail. But it was something else too: It was totally disproportionate and amounted to an act of intimidation. An exercise in fear.
Much of it was innuendo piled upon inaccuracy and accused some very benign organisations, such as Common Purpose and the Media Standards Trust, of being in a conspiracy against a free press.
But these organisations have very little power at all. The entire concept was ridiculous. And there is no way on earth it was worth 12 pages, that’s the kind of coverage you give a Royal engagement. In fact hardly anything gets so much coverage.
And do you know what? David Bell is not even an enemy of the Mail. He is a lifelong journalist, started as I did with Westminster Press – in his case the Oxford Mail – where he rose up the ranks before coming down to London where he rose to become Managing Editor of the FT and later Chief Executive and finally Chairman.
He is a staunch defender of a free press and used his role as a Leveson assessor to defend the press not attack it.
The Mail’s purpose was clear. Its use of language, its display of the story, its choice and size of headline and the juxtaposiiton of stories was pitched at anyone else who might dare to question its position on these matters. And it worked. It worked far better than anyone will ever know. I know one senior editor who has declined to break ranks because of what happened to David Bell and there may be many others.
It has not stopped everyone of course: people such as Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant have spoken out. It is a very unfashionable thing to say but those two men have shown considerable courage. They are not perfect human beings, just as I am not a perfect human being. But do you know any perfect human beings? I certainly do not.
My observation, however, is that the only people I have met in my life who think they are right about everything are newspaper editors themselves. Not all of them. Not all of the time. But too often and I know because I was like that too. I’m afraid the self-image of some editors is completely out of kilter with reality. And I was no exception. I thought I was a freedom fighter: But I was not.
I added up all my readers (10 million people, nearly a quarter of the adult population) and said I represented them, all of them, as if they would ever all agree on anything and as if I had any right to do so. So in my head nobody could disagree with me. If anyone disagreed with me they were disagreeing with 10 million people, so how dare they? It was almost undemocratic to disagree with me… L’Etat, c’est moi!
And this is relevant because if you lack self-awareness as an editor you are far more likely to be totally hypocritical. There are times when the British press is so hypocritical it takes my breath away. I know because I was hypocritical myself.
I ran a Sun front page with the headline ‘BBC is on drugs’ in which I accused the Beeb of just that: of being full of active drug users and addicts who were polluting the public airwaves generally being a very bad thing.
At the time, the early naughties, I was still a huge drinker myself and very rarely sober for 24 hours in a row. That front page was utter and total hypocrisy and was also not based on any evidence at all. Dearie me.
My Chairman Les Hinton once said to me: all editors go mad eventually – it is just a matter of time… how very right he was. Perhaps it is not surprising. But whether they are mad or just un-self-aware the fact is editors and proprietors in this country, past and present, see themselves as the small guy, the little man, the powerless man struggling against the powerful elite.
They think the Establishment is out to get them. What they fail to grasp is that they became the Establishment themselves. It is they that are the powerful and others that are weak. Ask the McCanns, ask the Dowlers, ask Christopher Jefferies. This applies to the celebrities too. People like Steve Coogan, Charlotte Church and so on don’t have any power at all, not really. But the editors do.
And I must tell you another story about The Sun. I once, I think in my first year, ran a leader condemning the establishment – I cannot recall exactly what I said but it was something to the effect that the British establishment had let down the readers and must be got rid of.
I ranted and I raved and the staff all agreed with me because I was the boss. Les Hinton, my Chairman, came down the corridor, and said something to the effect of ‘You can’t write that!’ I looked at him quizzically. ‘Why not,’ I said. Because ‘you are the establishment,’ he replied and explained that as we were the biggest paper in the daily market (one in four papers) our right to sit outside was non-existent.
I do not know if he was right but I do know Les was often very wise and helpful to me in those years.
I’ve talked about lack of self-awareness but have also observed – and even experienced – another phenomenon that needs to be addressed: the issue of stifled debate.
As this crisis deepened, for too long very few editors printed anything whatsoever negative about their own industry. And then when matters became so bad that they had to report the news they either played it down to a ridiculous degree or censored what they printed.
I had my first experience this when the MST’s submission to Leveson was first published. The report, written by Martin Moore and Gordon Neil Ramsay, advised by me and a panel of others, proved to be very influential. Amongst other recommendations, it put forward a scheme of recognition and review, similar to the one Leveson eventually recommended. Copies were sent to every news outlet. We did not expect very much coverage but we got: not one single report (although there was a fleeting mention in two opinion pieces). Yet there were over fifty articles about the industry’s proposal.
When as an ex-editor you experience this it begins to make you think. One of the most potent weapons a newspaper has is to totally ignore an issue or a story. People often attack newspapers for what they print. But it is what they do not print that is often the bigger story. It is just that this is difficult to spot.
To say the very least, the press have done themselves no favours in the biased way this entire matter has been reported. Which leads me onto the groupthink issue, or the issue of a pack mentality.
All elites exhibit a pack mentality and the media is no different. It is why powerful groupings need forms of regulation: it is why bankers are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, why broadcasters are by OFCOM or in the case of the BBC by the BBC Trust.
Very few newspapers have dared to differ from the fundamental response to the great big mess that caused the Leveson Inquiry in the first place. There is a party line. And nearly everybody follows it. The party line is that Leveson and the Royal Charter which later followed represent state regulation of the media.
Here are just a few examples:
- The Sun said: ‘The process has more in common with tyranny than a nation that founded parliamentary government’ (31st Oct 2013)
- The Telegraph said that under the Royal Charter ‘politicians could conspire to attack the press’ (Telegraph leader, 31st Oct)
- The Mail said: ‘…a Royal Charter that could bring to an end three centuries of Press freedom in this country’ (Daily Mail leader, 26th Oct)
- The Mirror said: ‘The death warrant for press freedom was signed yesterday by four politicians meeting in private in a Royal Palace.’ (Mirror leader, 31st Oct)
- The Sunday Times said: ‘It is the chilling effect on freedom of speech that comes from the proposal to establish political interference in the press.” (Sunday Times leader, 3rd Nov)
- The Express said: ‘Fury greeted the end of more than 300 years of press freedom yesterday as the seal was put on a mandate for State backed control’ (Express leader, 31st Oct)
This is all fine and dandy except for one simple fact that dare not speak its name: it is not really true. Leveson’s recommendations did not include anything that can be fairly described as state regulation.The Royal Charter did not include anything that can be fairly described as state regulation.
This is the absolute heart of the problem. Just because you shout something from the rooftops does not mean it is true. And in this case it is not true. Neither is it true that IPSO, which is the industry’s own response to Leveson, delivers all the key elements that Leveson called for in his report.
Let us remember why Leveson happened and why we are all here and what this is all about. It is about the rights of the ordinary people, the powerless against the powerful. Viewed in that context IPSO does not come close to giving the British public what they need which is:
- Low cost legal redress when they have been illegally abused or misrepresented.
- A straightforward and effective complaints process from which they can receive a quick correction or apology.
- Confidence that, if a publication is habitually abusing its power, or has done so in a particularly egregious way, it will be properly investigated and – if found guilty – fined
- Reassurance that the process is fair and independent
Those in the industry need to realise that they can’t simply set up a system that has many of the flaws of the old one, run by the same people that ran the old one. Remember Jeremy Paxman is regulated as is Alastair Stewart, Kay Burley, Natasha Kaplinsky so is John Humphries and Eddie Mair. So is Dispatches and so is Panorama. Are these journalists state controlled? What we witnessed, I’m afraid, was pure hysteria.
One year on from publication of the Leveson report it looks as though the public may soon be worse off than they were before the whole Inquiry started.
This is not just because IPSO is not up to snuff it is because the key means of access to legal redress in media cases is about to disappear next year – as Conditional Fee Arrangements or no-win no-fees are going, probably by April.
Indeed if the Royal Charter fails and the old PCC goes early next year we will have a chaotic situation with the new IPSO up and running but not all the newspapers signed up, and not supported by victims of press abuse, civil society groups, and many others.
And, once CFAs are no longer available in media cases, legal redress will be reserved for the wealthiest. So the next Christopher Jefferies will not be able to challenge the newspapers that falsely accused him of murder. That, it seems to me, is both unjust and deeply depressing.
So having being so critical of the industry I want to end with a suggestion as to how this impasse could be resolved.
It is fashionable to think that journalism is dying but I do not see that at all. I see huge opportunities for journalists in the future, different from before but perhaps even more exciting. The public will always want to know the news.
If there is to be a solution to this entire mess it may be very simple indeed. It may be that the current editors accept a chink of light into the debate, a little chink of humility. If they were to do that and IPSO was updated to come closer to the Leveson plan then maybe, just maybe, a solution could be found. I hope so. Because if journalism it to move on and thrive journalists need to ask themselves how it is that the industry became so hated.
How on earth is it that journalism as an honest trade went from being a force for good to a force that inflicted suffering on the weak? In South Africa and in Northern Ireland we have seen what truth and reconciliation can begin to achieve: it is not easy but change is happening. You cannot have change without truth. You cannot have change without reconciliation.
I am afraid that whatever else the British press has done in recent years it has done insufficient of either. It simply does not understand that it became the very thing it is there to attack: a vested interest. It did not listen but instead censored the public debate about itself. And it tried to shout down and bully anyone who had the temerity to challenge the party line. This behavior had gone on far too long. It is unhealthy for the country and unhealthy for journalists as well. And it needs to change, because in the words of the Prime Minister, right at the beginning of this process whatever comes next ‘has to work for the victims.’
We are now one year from Leveson. It would be intolerable if this time next year, on the 2nd anniversary of Leveson, the public was still worse off than it was before this entire mess started. But that is where we are headed. What a total mess we have made of this and how badly have we failed the British people.