The press was lobbying hard against the Leveson Inquiry weeks before the report and Lord Levesons proposals had been made public. One of the arguments is that Lord Leveson has got it wrong because the behaviour of the journalists on the Sun was not just a breach of ethics, but was downright criminal. The ineffable Sir Max Hastings made this point on Saturday in the Financial Times. The police, he says, disgracefully failed in their duty. No regulatory body could investigate and punish such wrong doing he thunders. Well, I don’t see any reason why a regulatory body couldn’t do just that, but people who make this argument might just make the effort to ask why did the police turn a blind eye to what Sir Max describes as “sustained criminality”?
The answer is contained in the report of another inquiry, whose findings were published in September of this year. I know we seem to be up to our eyebrows in inquiry’s right now, but this one also had something to say about press ethics. It was the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Hillsborough Stadium was where, in 1989, 96 men, women and children were crushed to death. The report is quite damning about the relationship between the press and the police.
Chapter 12 of the report is the key part here. Forgive me for quoting the summary at the chapters head. “In the days after the disaster the media, particularly the press, published allegations and counter-allegations apportioning blame. This came to a head on April 19th when a number of newspapers, the Sun being the most prominent reported serious allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool fans before and during the unfolding tragedy.”
In paragraph 142 of the report it details these allegations. Another quote. “The Sun newspaper published a front page story under the banner headline THE TRUTH, alleging that Liverpool fans had assaulted and urinated on police officers resuscitating the dying, stolen from the dead and verbally sexualy abused an unconscious young woman.” People naturally complained about these allegations. The Managing Editor of the Sun wrote a letter in reply, in which he said that he regretted the presentation of the article, but would not apologise because the story was factually correct.
The allegations in fact emanated from a local news agency, and were based on meetings over three days between agency staff, several police officers, an interview with the local MP and the secretary of the South Yorkshire Police Federation. The allegations have proved groundless. The stories were put together with the express aim of whitewashing the role of the police in the tragedy. Yet the Sun never apologised, not once in twenty years.
The willingness of the tabloid press to act as a mouthpiece for the forces of law and order might go some way to explain the failure to take a close look at the “sustained criminality” of some News Interantional journalists. That and the fact that a senior copper from the Met ended up on their payroll, as were, and still are, several Members of Parliament. So when you hear people talk about freedom of the press, ask them to explain themselves. Freedom for who, to say what, and why? And remember Hillsborough.