The phone hacking scandal of the past few weeks have been played out like a fast paced TV drama. Indeed if this was a fiction, you might criticise it for being OTT. As the trail of suspicion has led closer and closer to the heart of News Corp and the government, the cast of characters has grown even more complex. Resignation have come fast and furious, if they had come singly they would have dominated the headlines for weeks and weeks. The pace has been high octane with the sad death of Sean Hoare who had courageously been the first journalist to break the cloak of silence about phone hacking at The News of the World adding a further twist to the story.

The tabloid journalist especially those from the Red Tops have gone from being the hunters to the hunted. Politician, celebrities and sportsmen have paraded themselves on every conceivable news and current affairs programme denigrating tabloid journalism, wanting to muzzle the press with statutory regulation.

What has shocked me over the past ten days is the thirst for revenge that some politicians have displayed. Some still nurse wounds from the expenses scandal of 2010 and now see the phone hacking scandal as pay back.

One of the thirstiest politicians I have heard over the past week was Lord Kinnock on the Today programme on Radio Four (Wednesday 13th July). He can be forgiven for wanting revenge, we all remember the headline on the front page of The Sun on Election Day 1987 “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” The former Labour leader proposed a “balanced press” backed up by law ensuring impartiality along the lines that regulated the broadcast media. He went on to say “We would live in a much freer country”

But would we? I believe what Kinnock is proposing is that newspapers be controlled indirectly by politician. Do we really want to live in a country like this?

Tighter press regulation would mean that the corrupt and unscrupulous will be harder to expose. We shouldn’t forget that at times unprincipled methods have had to be employed against the unscrupulous. Just think back over the past few years without using these methods we would never have discovered the corruption in FIFA or the Pakistani cricketers match fixing.

Campaigning and exposé are two of the things that tabloids especially the Red Tops do well.

As a teenager I can remember the horrific images of Eric Piper and the words of John Pilger that exposed the truth of the Cambodian Killing Fields. The Daily Mirror devoted thirteen pages over two day to Cambodia. Both issues sold out; itself a response to those who say tabloid readers will only read pap and the parochial.

Back in the 1950s it was a tabloid columnist with The Daily Mirror one William Connor, writing under the by-line of Cassandra that raised public opinion on the abolition of capital punishment with the following words on the day Ruth Ellis received the death sentence.

“It’s a fine day for hay-making. A fine day for fishing. A fine day for lolling around in the sunshine. And if you feel that way — a fine day for a hanging…In human nature where passion is involved, love and hate walk hand in hand and side be side…Ruth Ellis does not matter…But what we do to her — you and I — matters very much. And if we do it, and we continue to do it to her successors, then we all bear the guilt of savagery, untinged with mercy.”

And more recently Tom Parry’s series of articles and blogs in The Daily Mirror going back to 2009 warning of and revealing what life is like for the poor and hunger people living in the Horn of Africa facing a slowing lingering death due to civil war and famine.

No wonder then that year on year tabloid journalists pick up awards at the National Press Awards.

I do get annoyed when I hear the good and the great denigrate tabloid readers. They fail to understand that the vast majority of people in this country do not have the time or the inclination to read lengthy articles written by the broadsheet press.

A good tabloid will take a complex issues or story and boil it down into a simple argument or narrative. Tabloid readers want their news and features in easy to read bite sized articles, wrapped up with a good dose of entertainment, gossip and silliness. It is not a crime to be interested in celebrities and their lifestyle so long as the journalists and photographers respect their privacy. Broadsheets follow were the tabloid blaze the trail; however they dress their coverage of celebrity misdemeanours’ as social commentary, then have the audacity to criticise the Red Tops for press intrusion.

If we want to keep a free press in this country and not the statutory regulatory controls that Lord Kinnock proposed in his interview on Radio Four, we need a new professional body for journalists and newspapers with the powers to strike journalists off for malpractice and impose tougher sanctions against newspapers that flout the code.

I believe that the vast majority of decent and honest hard working journalists in this country would support such a body that would help reporters stand up to overzealous editors and proprietors who orders them to do something that would breach the code.

Would the phone hacking scandal have happened if the PCC had been given these sanctions at its inception in 1991?

I hope when we finally emerge from the phone hacking scandal that we still have our Red Top tabloids, as this country would be a far duller place without them. Let’s hope the politicians see reason and don’t write the final headline for the tabloid press “Gotcha”.

John Mead

Source documents and inspiration

Reporting the World by John Pilger
John Freedland Guardian article on phone hacking
Ros Wynne Jones They’ve Still Got News for Us article in the Independent
Read All About It A History of the Daily Mirror
Cassandra Column Daily Mirror 30.6.55
Andrew Grices Inside Westminster Column Thirst for Revenge