The Leveson inquiry probes. . .why the Sun is such a great newspaper

The inquiry is supposed to delve into the nastier side of tabloid journalism - but Dominic Mohan got

It was a gentle ride for Dominic Mohan, editor of the Sun, at Leveson yesterday. There were no searching questions, no awkward moments, no difficulties to speak of.

The most optimistic way of viewing the session was that it was a way of lulling other serving editors into a false sense of security before their appearances before the inquiry. Whatever the reasons, Mohan came out of it all very well. He had time to emphasise the positive contribution made by the Sun through its charitable and educational endeavours, as well as explain how the Sun was a bastion of quality journalism.

At times, Mohan slipped into well rehearsed corporate speak, turning it into an advertisement for the virtues of his newspaper -- as you'd expect he would. If you read the coverage in today's Sun you might be forgiven for thinking that the Leveson inquiry is attempting to find out why the 'super soaraway' is such a bloody great newspaper, rather than delving into the nastier side of tabloid journalism.

Stories involving anonymous sources required four separate signatures, he explained. The Sun was in constant contact with the PCC, he said. Nothing "prevented" the Sun from telling the story of Anthony Worrall Thompson being convicted of shoplifting, he said. Rupert Murdoch was a"journalist at heart" but never interfered, he insisted. An interesting choice of verb, "interfere", but there was only gentle probing.

"I've seen mistakes over the years and I've learned from them," said Mohan, quoting the example of Charlotte Church's complaint about her pregnancy being reported before she had reached 12 weeks (the PCC upheld an adjudication about the story). "As a result I have obviously not printed stories about females under 12 weeks pregnant. Last year we had a story about Dannii Minogue and they told me she was under 12 weeks and I decided not to run it."

The Mirror, though, did run it, and were censured by the PCC, despite the information already being in the "public domain" thanks to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald. If Mohan gave the impression of a newspaper that stood strong against the temptation to print such stories, that bubble was punctured only a little when he was later presented with a Sun story from 4 November last year, where the paper speculated about whether the Duchess of Cambridge may or may not have been pregnant.

"It looks like a piece of speculation about the DOC's dietary requirements," said Mohan. Which it is, although there wasn't much speculation of that nature going on. Under the headline "Something you're nut telling us, Kate?" the story wonders aloud why the Duchess might have turned down the chance to eat peanut paste while on an official engagement.

The tale is illustrated by one of those "onlookers" who so conveniently pop up at times like this, saying exactly the kind of speculative thing that fits the narrative of the story perfectly, so perfectly that you'd be hard pressed to make up a better quote. The anonymous "onlooker" -- possibly wanting their identity to be concealed for fear of reprisals from the Royal family -- was quoted as saying: "The Duchess does not have a nut allergy, nor is it like her to appear rude. The only explanation is that she is pregnant and has been told -- like many expectant mothers -- to avoid nuts."

Is there really a piece of paper somewhere in a filing cabinet at Wapping with four signatures on it, saying who that "onlooker" is? Perhaps that was an opportunity missed by Leveson, to get the Sun's editor to discuss these anonymous "friends", "sources", "onlookers" and "eyewitnesses" who pop up all the time in tabloid tales -- not just to fluff out a relatively harmless story with a startlingly perfect quote, but in more serious contexts too.

But there were no big hits, no big quotes, no errors from all this. It was the kind of dull, un-newsworthy encounter that Mohan must have been hoping for, to keep himself out of the headlines and avoid putting the Sun in the spotlight. So far, it doesn't appear that editors will be getting a rough ride at Leveson -- not yet, at least.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage