Recent events at Guardian Media Group have not inspired confidence that the paper which for so long stood apart from Fleet Street conformity would continue to shine the light of investigative journalism where the establishment would rather they did not. The willingness to stand up for those traduced by press misbehaviour has gradually been eroded. And now has come a sellout of jaw-dropping proportions.
The rot set in over former editor Alan Rusbridger’s aborted appointment to head the Scott Trust, that body which oversees GMG. New editor Kath Viner turned on her predecessor, who was viciously defenestrated in what can only be described as a coup against the Ancien Régime, the excuses centring around losses that the Guardian and Observer titles had incurred under Rusbridger’s leadership. It was only the start.
Journalists who had given the Guardian many of its great stories in the recent past decided to call it a day: David Leigh, Nick Davies and senior sage Michael White all departed. Leigh had been involved in many of the Tory sleaze exposés of the 1990s, notably the “A Liar And A Cheat” front page splash that marked the beginning of the end for the self-enriching Mostyn Neil Hamilton as a Conservative MP.
Davies had doggedly pursued the phone hacking scandal from its first reporting in the paper in 2009, through to the moment two years later when the dam burst over the Dowler hacking and the Murdoch empire was, for once, undone. The subsequent Leveson Inquiry showed the world the venal, corrupt, unprincipled, uncaring and self-serving nature of much of what is passed off as journalism. But the paper now wants no more of that.
Instead, today the paper of Charles Prestwich Scott, and latterly of Alastair Hetherington, Peter Preston and Alan Rusbridger has published what amounts to an apologia for the status quo, saying of Leveson Part 2 “What is missing here is an appreciation of the present. Investigations into past behaviour ignore what the media industry is today. Facebook is by far the most pervasive network for news. Google dwarfs others in terms of media distribution. Sparky websites and blogs vie with traditional newsprint for readers and advertising revenue. Yet there is silence on the means to regulate them”.
This ignores the weight given by readers of newspapers, as well as politicians and other opinion formers, to the printed word. The Guardian carries more clout, despite its relatively small circulation, because it carries the trust that the new media cannot.
That trust, and that continuing “Power without responsibility”, to once more use the phrase first turned by Stanley Baldwin, are why there should be more attention paid to the occasions on which the Fourth Estate strays from its declared high principles. Moreover, Leveson Part 2 brings the long story arc that began with Nick Davies’ revelations to its conclusion. To abandon it now is to abandon all those victims of press misbehaviour.
Yet all that the Guardian’s editorial can manage is “A fitting coda to Leveson would be not another inquiry, but a referral of the proposed merger of 21st Century Fox with Sky to Ofcom”, suggesting that the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel will somehow manage to conclude its work without the back-stop that Leveson 2 would have provided.
And that is not all: added to the effective abandonment of all those victims of press malpractice is what amounts to a shameless U-Turn over Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. After declaring that IMPRESS is not really independent - I don’t recall Ms Viner or any of her staff making such a suggestion to the Press Recognition Panel which concluded that IMPRESS was indeed demonstrably independent - comes yet another craven apologia, which could have been written by the press establishment itself.
“A free press is a constitutional necessity, not an ornamental timepiece. There is no other option but to repeal section 40. The Guardian believes that the independence of the press is best served by self- not state- regulation. Most others agree”. What the Royal Charter process gives us is not “state regulation”, and it shames the voice of Liberal Journalism to claim otherwise. Worse still, the Guardian has abandoned not merely those with whom it stood during the phone hacking scandal and subsequent trial, but its own beliefs.
We know this as Guardian News And Media’s submission to the Leveson Inquiry, which considered how mediation could be used to resolve complaints - similar to the low-cost arbitration system offered by IMPRESS, which the latest editorial manages to ignore - and which also considers what it called an Alternative Dispute Resolution, or ADR, process to ensure disputes are where possible kept out of the courts, included this paragraph.
“To comply with Article 6, a complainant would continue to hold the right to pursue a claim through the courts if dissatisfied with the ADR process. However, the courts would have regard to the history of the ADR when determining whether the claimant had acted reasonably. An unreasonable decision to pursue legal proceedings would be likely to leave the claimant exposed to paying the costs of those proceedings, irrespective of their outcome … One possibility is that the mediator could prepare a report as to whether the parties have acted reasonably. That report would then be admissible on costs at the conclusion of any subsequent legal proceedings (thereby treating the mediation process as without prejudice save as to costs)” [my emphasis].
What I have highlighted is the Genesis of Section 40. In the Guardian’s Leveson submission. Compare and contrast with today’s craven editorial.
It is with a heavy heart that Zelo Street must conclude that the Guardian, of all newspapers, has not only abandoned the victims of press malpractice, it has also abandoned its own principles, perhaps in the belief that the wave of hatred from the rest of the press over phone hacking - where the Guardian declined to observe the culture of Omertà, refused to remain silent - would abate. On this, they could not be more wrong.
Without the investigative journalism that Leigh, Davies and their colleagues majored in over so many years, there is little else in the Guardian but more and more punditry. In this, the paper risks heading the same way as the rest of the press, but with more left-leaning comment, and less clout when it calls out what it sees as wrong.
And without the principles to which it has held firm while so many other papers have regarded such things as readily expendable, the Guardian will swiftly surrender its cutting edge, its USP, indeed, its very Raison d’Être.
It is not yet too late for Ms Viner and her team to revisit and rediscover what made the Guardian great. But it looks increasingly doubtful that there will be any revisiting. The legacy of Scott has been squandered on the altar of expediency, to be lost for ever.