Never mind Kavanagh, News International needs a tidy-up at the top

Posted on February 13, 2012


The Sun’s Associate editor and rag commentariat, Trevor Kavanagh, launched a staggering diatribe against the treatment of News International journalists yesterday, in the wake of the arrest of five Sun journalists on Saturday.

Chief reporter John Kay, chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker, picture editor John Edwards, deputy editor Geoff Webster and deputy news editor John Sturgis were all arrested on Saturday as part of the Met’s investigation into hacking, surveillance and bribery at News International’s offices.

News International's offices, London. Photo credit: Steve Daniels

Kavanagh’s article – ‘Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press freedom’ – tries very hard to pass the buck away from News International, and onto the police and public instead.

Rather than gently reminding readers that journalists are human beings who have bosses like everyone else, Kavanagh went in for the high and mighty, and in so doing ruined any credibility his argument might have had to begin with.

A free press?

“Is it any surprise,” he asks, “that Britain has dropped nine places to 28th, behind ex-Soviet bloc states Poland, Estonia and Slovakia, in the international Freedom of Speech league table?”

Well, no.

Non-profit media organization, Reporters Without Borders (who compile the annual Press Freedom Index) say in their accompanying report: “Against the extraordinary backdrop of the News of the World affair, the United Kingdom (28th) caused concern with its approach to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots.”

So Kavanagh’s argument is immediately undermined, using the very source he provided himself.

But his whole article fails to stand up to common sense. Kavanagh even goes as far as to suggest the “good sources” that News International papers have been found to be using (private diaries and answerphone messages from mobile phones, public officials and police officers) were in fact “whistleblowers.”

Whistleblowers, sometimes

“These stories sometimes involve whistleblowers,” he claims. “Sometimes money changes hands. This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.”

It adds a courageous, subversive Wikileaks sheen to a shameful journalistic operation based on corporate clout, market dominance and unscrupulous management. News International is about as much the media-underdog as Murdoch himself, the self-styled Australian rebel tackling the stuffy British Establishment one paper-heist at a time.

Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), said: “Once again Rupert Murdoch is trying to pin the blame on individual journalists, hoping that a few scalps will salvage his corporate reputation.” She agreed a “witch-hunt” was in effect against journalists.

It’s certainly true that journalists are treated with more suspicion, animosity and outright worry by members of the public than before.

It’s not always their (our?) fault. And this is where Kavanagh actually begins to make sense: “Some of the greatest legends in Fleet Street have been held, at least on the basis of evidence so far revealed, for simply doing their jobs as journalists on behalf of the company.”

Channel 4's John Snow reports on HACKING last year. Photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams

“Hegemony of blame”

This is the most telling phrase: “on behalf of the company.” In the rest of the article Kavanagh is arguing for what most people understand by journalists simply doing their jobs – good, ethical journalism in the public interest. But this statement creates a contradiction because journalists simply doing their jobs on behalf of News International is not the same thing.

Stanistreet and Kavanagh are right: we should be laying less blame at the door of individual journalists. If they’ve committed crimes then they should face the law.

But ultimately the Murdoch corporate machine is to blame, because it demands unethical journalism of its journalists and then uses them as scapegoats. This hegemony of blame always works in Murdoch’s favour, and it’s about time someone turned it upside down. This is the greatest challenge of the Leveson Inquiry, the Met’s investigations and of the whole miserable hacking scandal – that somehow, a final justice can be reached that benefits both journalism and the public interest, not corporate power.