The Telegraph has been told off. Big deal . . .

A toothless PCC won’t stop other newspapers using the <em>Telegraph</em>’s tactics: the rewards outw

The Telegraph has been given a pretty stern ticking-off by the Press Complaints Commission for its sting against Vince Cable and other senior Liberal Democrats. The Telegraph will go and sit on the naughty step and think about what it's done; and then everything will carry on much as before.

It's a decision that shows exactly how powerful – or not – the PCC is. But maybe there is no point in pretending that the PCC has any power other than the ability to wag its finger and go red in the face when its unruly charges step out of line. Maybe that's what the industry wants – and maybe that's what we as consumers want. Perhaps we don't like anything other than light-touch regulation, where publications that breach the code are forced to print the adjudication decision, on a page of their choosing.

So the Telegraph has been told off, but there's nothing to stop it, or any other paper, from going out on another "fishing expedition" this afternoon, or repeating exactly what happened with the Lib Dems. And maybe that's as it should be. There seems little appetite for change, as far as I can tell. Every year the PCC asks consumers what they think; every year, the vast majority of their suggestions are politely rejected. And no one makes a fuss about it. So, it may not be unfair to conclude that we must be happy with the current situation.

Richard Desmond's newspapers and magazines have pulled out of the self-regulation agreement without any considerable difference or shrieking outcry. Desmond has saved himself the cost of the whole self-regulation business, and everything has carried on.

Looked at from Desmond's point of view, it makes sense. Under the PCC, he had to pay money to be told, every now and then, that his newspapers had done something wrong – and bear the consequences. Well, I say "consequences", but there were no consequences other than having to print the adjudication. Everything carried on just as it was. Why pay for nothing to happen when you can pay nothing for nothing to happen?

There has been no great clamour for the Desmond newspapers to return. Readers have not demanded that Desmond's newspapers and magazines should return to the fold of the PCC, nor wrung their hands in worry about where to complain to get justice when they have a problem. It may be because we're entirely happy with the way things are, with a PCC regulating some of our newspapers and leaving others to fend for themselves; or it may be because readers don't anticipate there being any benefits to Desmond's papers being back under the PCC. It could be that, I suppose.

So, the Telegraph has been told off. Big deal. It got a huge story out of the secret recordings, several days' worth of front-page exclusives. Put that in one pan and put the wagging finger of the PCC in the other, and you can see whether it will dissuade anyone from using such tactics in the future.

And we don't complain, we don't demand reform of the PCC, we don't want things to change; so we must be happy that this is the way things work.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism