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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.