Calling time on reckless editors

As it waits to hear Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, the press is still drinking in the last-chance saloon.

Rebekah Brooks after giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry
Rebekah Brooks after giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images

The notion may not come easily to some New Statesman readers but we owe David Mellor a debt. When he spoke in 1989 of the press “drinking in the last-chance saloon”, he gave us a metaphor for the doomed fecklessness of editors and proprietors that is as potent as anything a Sun headline writer ever dreamed up.

His metaphor had to pass through a long period of ridicule or irrelevance as the saloon’s customers enjoyed round after round for 23 years, but now, thanks to the Leveson inquiry, it is back – and age has made it much more powerful.

That those who own and run our national papers were given so many last chances and that they squandered them so thoughtlessly and at such cost to so many surely removes the last doubt about the need to call time. We can now cast Lord Justice Leveson as the bartender who, shotgun at the ready, must sweep his drunken clientele into the street and bolt the door behind them.

When Mellor spoke of a last chance, he meant a last chance for self-regulation, the arrangement by which, since 1953, the press has been accountable to itself and not to any independent body when things go wrong. As followers of the Leveson inquiry will know, self-regulation gave us – or failed to prevent – hacking, blagging, the Sun’s Hillsborough coverage, the McCann affair, the Christopher Jefferies affair and much more.

So comprehensive has been its discrediting that even those who a few years ago boasted that it was an example to the world now accept that it didn’t adequately serve the British public and that its most recent incarnation as the Press Complaints Commission didn’t qualify as a regulator at all.

Raymond Snoddy, in his book The Good, the Bad and the Unacceptable, describes how, in 1990, a year after Mellor issued his warning, Rupert Murdoch asked the Calcutt committee (inquiring into privacy and press misconduct) for another chance. “Another chance?” asked a surprised panel member, alert to the brazenness of the request. Murdoch and his chums got away with it on that occasion. Are they brazen enough to come back and ask for yet another chance? You bet they are. Are we foolish enough to give them that chance? Let’s hope not.

Like the best metaphors, Mellor’s has additional dimensions. There is the last chance, yes, but there are also the saloon and the drinking. Not only are the editors and proprietors, it implies, getting away with things they oughtn’t to but they are getting drunk as they do it.

Fat controllers

That’s close to the mark. Evidence at Leveson left us with a picture of newspaper executives wallowing in their power over politicians, the police and the public, while they threw money around with abandon (six-figure payments to private investigators; similar sums for disgraced employees).

Though they wring their hands in public about the state of the industry and falling sales, many newspapers (the Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Mirror, the Star) continue to bank substantial profits. A combined annual profit figure for these titles of £250m would not be far wide of the mark. Journalists may be losing their jobs but those in charge have been enjoying themselves.

Orwell warned us against overusing metaphors because they soon lose their power to conjure up an image in the reader’s mind. The last-chance saloon may have been knocking around for nearly a quarter of a century but I’m not giving up on it. As we wait to hear Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and editors and proprietors once again plead the case for self-regulation, Mellor’s metaphor seems more vivid and more useful than ever.

Brian Cathcart’s ebook “Everybody’s Hacked Off: Why We Don’t Have the Press We Deserve and What to Do About It” is published by Penguin (£1.99).