Justin Schlosberg of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre argues that beyond the well-known cases in which media may have interfered with the course of justice and work of the police, there is also an overall failure of the media to properly investigate stories related to police behaviour and hold them to account.
On 17 July a cross section of victims, activists, academics, journalists and legal professionals gathered in a packed theatre at the LSE. The topic of discussion was the myriad cases of unresolved corruption that have emerged in the wake of Hackgate. Alastair Morgan – brother of murdered private investigator, Daniel – kicked off proceedings with reflections on his family’s on-going and 25 year-long struggle for justice.
What became clear as Alastair Morgan spoke was the intimate role of the media in what has been a comprehensive failure of accountability at multiple levels and across institutions. It is now well established is that after the murder, the News of the World developed close links with Southern Investigations – the company co-founded by Daniel Morgan and left to his partner Jonathan Rees (who was a lead suspect in the murder case). For decades, the company has been at the centre of the cash-for-stories network between News of the World and various levels of the Metropolitan Police. We also know that the News of the World comprehensively spied on Dave Cooke — the lead police investigator during the fourth attempt to bring Daniel Morgan’s killers to justice — along with his wife and Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames, as well as their children.
But there is another aspect of media failure which warrants closer attention than it has received; not least because it implicates more than just one former Sunday tabloid. It can be summed up with one question: why did it take more than two decades, five failed attempts at prosecution, and the revelations of the hacking scandal at News of the World for this to become a major news story? It was a question which emerged repeatedly in the remarks of other panellists, including Michael Powers QC – a lead figure in the campaign to re-open the inquest into David Kelly’s death.
In response, Kevin Marsh (former editor of the Today Programme) and Gavin MacFadyen (founder of the Centre for Investigative Journalism) rightly pointed to the institutional pressures that have long afflicted journalism in both commercial and public service sectors. The sharp end of pressure has been faced by precisely the kind of resource-intensive journalism needed to bring such stories to light. Another crucial problem highlighted by Michael Powers and others was the propensity for cases to be undermined by conspiracy theorists who try to fill a void of uncertainty with baseless conjecture. This leaves campaigners and campaigning journalists vulnerable to attempts to discredit and smear.
But neither resource pressures nor the stigma of conspiracy inhibited the Daily Telegraph’s long running campaign over MP’s expenses, or the Guardian’s lonely battle over hacking for several years before the rest of the media took notice. The problem goes deeper and has something to do with what Laurie Flynn (co-author of police corruption treatise ‘Untouchables’) referred to as an uquestioning faith among large swathes of the media in the integrity of British democracy. This faith has led to a questioning attitude among mainstream journalists that is limited to particular frameworks and contexts. And it is partly these limitations which have succeeded in marginalising stories of systemic corruption at the heart of state-corporate power; the kind of stories that go far beyond expense fiddling — serious as that case was — in their reach and implications.
The question remains what can we do about this? The Leveson hearings will not necessarily provide the answer but there are many reasons why they do offer an unprecedented opportunity for change. Not because the outcome will necessarily be the kind of substantive reform that will radically alter the culture of journalism for the better. The opportunity consists in the voice it has given to those who have long protested against the power of major media owners to dominate public conversation and corrupt public life. And it taps into widespread concern over the health of British democracy that has been latent since the unprecedented display of opposition to the Iraq War. There is a strong sense that the media have not given adequate voice to those concerns which came across in audience responses and resonated with pannelists in turn.
Leveson will not – and should not – call for an end to tabloid journalism. He will not solve the structural crises afflicting journalism resulting from decades of unchecked consolidation and the challenge to traditional models posed by digital media. But he could do something to reinvigorate those sectors of journalism most fundamental to democracy and most vulnerable to structural crisis. That is why Media Reform is calling for a Public Media Trust to be charged with promoting independence and diversity across media platforms. If history has taught us anything, it is that justice depends on strong, committed journalists who work in the interests of the public rather than their pay masters.