Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

 For any student of the British press the endless barrage of red-top headlines that fills the stage at the National Theatre is often as funny, or sometimes even funnier, than the script lines of Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire on tabloid journalism and the phone-hacking trial.

Constantly updated front pages from The Free Press and its imaginary competitors hark back to the heyday of the manufactured story-line and the glory days of classic Sun scoops such as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.   

Rebekah Brooks (acquitted) and Andy Coulson (convicted) are two unspoken names that are both front of stage in the mind of the audience but so too should be those of the ex-editor of the Sun,  Kelvin MacKenzie, and the former publicist Max Clifford, whose string of “exclusives” once dominated Fleet Street.

The MacKenzie-Clifford production line of kiss-and-tell stories, and the gob-smacking headlines that went with them, helped to generate an insatiable appetite for celebrity scandal that required ever-more intrusive forms of journalism and heralded the descent into the hacking of messages left on mobile phones.

A brash inventiveness among headline writers and the ingenuity and cunning of journalists who write exclusives sourced only on the words of “An onlooker said...” are characteristics that have become the hallmark of the British tabloid press.

Rebekah Brooks’ acquittal on the charge of phone hacking will be interpreted by much of the newspaper industry as a vote of confidence in its decision to defy Parliament and to press ahead with the launch in the autumn of a new, independent press regulator.

“Keep Out” could almost be the caption below the Sun’s front page welcoming what is said were “a string of not guilty verdicts” after a trial that had been “one of the longest and most expensive in British criminal history”.

Brooks’ not guilty verdict was greeted with great relief by those newspaper proprietors and editors who have turned their back on the royal charter on press regulation that gained cross-party support in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

Andy Coulson’s conviction for conspiracy to hack phones had been widely expected among fellow journalists. But his finding of guilt – and guilty pleas from five others who were involved – has largely contained fallout from the case within the confines of journalists employed on the now defunct News of the World.  

David Cameron’s swift apology for his “bad decision” in 2007 for having given Coulson a second chance by appointing him the Conservative Party’s pre-election publicity chief, and later taking him into Downing Street as the government’s director of communications, was aimed a drawing a line under the affair.

As the prosecution continues to present its evidence at the Old Bailey in the case alleging phone hacking and the bribing of public officials, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only is British justice on trial but also journalism itself.

Repeated references have been made to the payments which it is alleged were made to sources who supplied information to the Sun and the News of the World.

Paying cash to get facts to support a reporter’s story line is a practice which splits journalistic opinion.

Indeed there could hardly be a clearer dividing line: some reporters are prepared to pay for information and justify their conduct on the grounds that sometimes this may be the only way to stand up stories which are in the public interest. 

But on the other hand there are those journalists who say they have never offered money to informants -- and never would – and who insist they would always try to rely on journalistic endeavour rather than cash or the cheque book.

Once the Queen had placed her seal of approval on the politically-approved version of the royal charter for press regulation there must have been a collective sigh of relief among the three party leaders.

Almost by a whisker they had ensured that radio and television reports of the opening of the prosecution’s case in the phone hacking trial would be balanced by the news that the politicians had delivered on their promise to respond to the Leveson Inquiry.

But the Privy Council’s rendezvous with Queen at Buckingham Palace was nothing more than an empty gesture dressed up in the guise of some pretty clumsy news management.

When it came to influencing the headlines – and that is what it was all about – the message from the leadership of the three main parties was pretty clear: “We’ve proved we can stand up to the press on behalf of the public.  We’ve done our bit.”

Yet in reality the political leaders know they are simply treading water. The ball remains very firmly in the hands of newspaper and magazine proprietors who will carry on regardless in establishing their Leveson-style regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Across the country local press reporters will have every reason to reflect on the long-term impact of Rupert Murdoch’s forty-year stewardship of some of Britain’s most popular daily and Sunday newspapers.

Whether for or against the introduction of a Leveson-style press regulator, journalists past and present will have a view as the evidence unfolds during the News of the World phone hacking trial at the Old Bailey which is due to start on Monday 28 October.

Murdoch’s lasting impact on British journalism is that he more than any other proprietor has been responsible for encouraging the monetisation of the most basic function of our trade – the gathering of news.

Reporters of my generation, who trained on local evening and weekly newspapers, were not accustomed to being asked: “How much?” “What’s it worth?” whenever they sought interviews or photographs.

Local journalists tell me such routines are a commonplace experience today.  People involved in human interest stories realise their contributions might have a value even though their assistance in providing information to the local newspaper might be for the local good, perhaps preventing mishaps or misfortune for neighbours or other residents.