National newspapers are not in the habit of washing their dirty linen in public. You have only to look at the scant coverage given to the media tycoon Richard Desmond’s divorce last year to find evidence that dog does not bite dog on Fleet Street. One of the most extraordinary results of the News of the World hacking scandal is that the code of omertà between the media “families” has been suspended.
On 12 July, for instance, Metro, the Associated Newspapers free daily, breathlessly announced on its front page: “Brown’s sick babies targeted by hackers” – raising the prospect that the alleged theft of four-month-old Fraser Brown’s medical records in 2006 would cause the same reputational damage to the Sun as the Milly Dowler phone-hacking did to the News of the World.
In fact, as Press Gazette has reported, the source of the story about Fraser’s cystic fibrosis was more likely to have been someone close to the Browns who tipped off the paper. What this story showed, however, is that – in less than a fortnight – newspapers that used to disdain writing about each other, even with rock-solid evidence, have taken off the gloves.
Butlers and bananas
The five press “families” have kept pretty quiet about phone-hacking until now. Apart from News International, they are Express Newspapers, led by Desmond; Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Mirror and the People; Telegraph Media Group, owned by the reclusive Barclay brothers; and Associated Newspapers, whose chairman, Jonathan Harmsworth, inherited the Mail papers from his father along with the title of Viscount Rothermere.
Outside this group, the London Evening Standard, Independent and Independent on Sunday are controlled by Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev, still relative newcomers. The Russians, along with the Guardian, are excluded from the list of “families” because they often show a willingness to break the omertà.
Our newspaper owners together wield enormous power, and if they ran any other type of business – or ran for office – they would be the stuff of great headlines.
Rupert Murdoch we all know. Then there are the self-made billionaire Barclays, David and Frederick, who own the Telegraph titles (as well as the Spectator magazine) and live together on Brecqhou, their own private island in the English Channel. David’s son Aidan is the brothers’ emissary on earth, managing their British businesses.
Desmond made his money with a stable of magazines (including pornographic titles) before he bought the Express, and has a reputation for being, shall we say, a colourful negotiator. According to Fleet Street legend, a butler delivers a banana to his office twice a day on a silver tray, and he once goose-stepped and did Basil Fawlty-style salutes in front of Daily Telegraph executives because a German group was bidding for the company. He was simply “having a laugh at their misfortunes”, he later said.
The 43-year-old owner of the Mail, Viscount Rothermere, made his money the old-fashioned way – he inherited it, at the age of 30 – and now controls Daily Mail and General Trust, a media empire with a turnover of £2bn.
Only the Mirror titles are publicly listed on the stock market rather than being privately controlled. But the Mirror remained strangely quiet as new allegations about phone-hacking and corruption at News International came to light.
It’s true that there have been a few brief breaches of the uneasy peace between the families over the years. In 2003, the Daily Express launched a series of scathing attacks on the Rothermere family after the Daily Mail reported that the Labour Party had refused a £100,000 gift from Desmond.
These included recounting Harold Harmsworth’s support for Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, as well as retelling stories about the marital infidelity of the current viscount’s father. A ceasefire was soon declared, however, and largely holds to this day.
Then, in 2005, the Barclay brothers responded to a series of articles in the Times which cast aspersions on the manner in which they had made their fortune by personally suing both the then editor, Robert Thomson, and the then media editor, Dan Sabbagh, in the French courts for criminal libel. They dropped the case after the Times printed a “clarification” of the original story, and peace reigned again.
So, have the events of the past fortnight changed this media landscape for good? The orgy of press self-flagellation would put Max Mosley to shame, and it does feel pretty self-destructive. A ComRes poll carried out for ITN between 8 and 10 July found that 80 per cent of Britons do not trust the media.
But newspapers have had ethical crises before – in the 1980s, when tabloid excesses led to the setting up of the Press Complaints Commission, and in 1997 when newspapers vowed not to use paparazzi pictures following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The biggest casualty from all this is likely to be the PCC, the industry regulator, which will have to be transformed to regain public trust. However, any changes will have to await the conclusion of the judicial inquiry into press standards promised by David Cameron – which is likely to be a couple of years away.
As for the omertà, we can only hope that it, too, is swept away by the new mood of self-criticism and scrutiny – but don’t hold your breath.
As we journalists are fond of saying, sunlight is the best disinfectant. That light is being shone into some very dark places at present, and long may it continue.
Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette.