The Leveson Inquiry & Employment Law

[First published in The Morning Star, 17/12/2011. See my previous post on the issue in March here.]

The wheels of Justice Leveson grind slow but fine — and last week was no different as News Of The World ex-editor Colin Myler took the stand.

With nearly a decade’s worth of skullduggery to draw on, the senior judge’s inquiry into media ethics has always risked falling prone to the same sensationalism it set out to investigate: from high-profile victims’ statements to the Watergate-like machinations of Murdoch’s most trusted executives, media coverage has favoured individual scandals over the systemic intimidation of journalists that spurs them.

But with Myler in the spotlight, barrister Robert Jay plodded on with an even more vital investigation: the workaday world of today’s tabloid reporter. How, in the most literal sense, do these people live with themselves?

More than anything, the inquiry has highlighted the pressure that publishers and editors can exert on reporters to abandon their professional integrity in pursuit of some other agenda. That kind of coercion is hardly unique to journalists, but the fallout is: a dishonest or misleading story does more than just injure your pride or your relationships with sources; it can, as we’ve seen from the inquiry’s endless parade of witnesses, destroy people’s lives.

But by the same token, refusing to work on such stories can mean destroying your own career. Job security has always been an unfunny in-joke among journalists – this esteemed organ included – and has unsurprisingly worsened post-recession. Meanwhile the Tories’ red-tape crusade has given our bosses the ability to essentially fire at-will during a reporter’s first year of service (with current plans to double it), and foisted the cost of an unfair dismissal lawsuit – estimated at £2,300 – onto us, assuming we last long enough to be eligible for one. Such moves have left a reporter on deadline and on probation with almost no protections whatsoever.

Not surprisingly the National Union of Journalists has been trying unsuccessfully for years to get a mandatory ‘conscience clause’ in reporters’ contracts. Which brings us back to Colin Myler’s appearance this week and his spirited defence of the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice — the professed industry standards at the heart of the Leveson inquiry.

When quizzed on the issue, Myler insisted journalists had a right to refuse an assignment if they believed it breached the Press Complaints’ Commission’s code of conduct: staff had already been required to observe the code as part of their employment contracts, but on his arrival Myler had rewritten the clause to make it “abundantly clear”.

“If you fall foul of it, you could be dismissed,” he said.

But were Myler’s staff as clear on that right as he was? There Myler hesitated.

The company had introduced workplace satisfaction surveys and held executive seminars on the issue, he said — but “probably, then, I don’t know the honest answer to that.”

Yet if his staff weren’t clear, they were all either saints or extraordinarily lucky. For all his hardline approach, not a single person was officially disciplined for breaching the code during Myler’s entire four-year tenure — and this at the News Of The World, for Neville’s sake.

But one jaded former freelancer appearing the fortnight before told a very different – and much more familiar – story about life in Britain’s fourth estate.

Richard Peppiatt, who quit the Daily Express with an explosive open letter in March, spoke of the daily pressure he came under to spin at the Express.

“Reporters, including myself, were often unhappy about some of the stories we were pressured to write. Certain executives would often overplay the strength of a story in editorial conference to please the editor, but would then lean on the reporter tasked with writing it to make the story fit what they’d pitched.”

“This was the case with the infamous ‘Muslim-only loos’ story, where a strong news line was decided before the facts were known; i.e. that there was only one ’squat’ toilet and it wasn’t paid for with taxpayer money. When later in the day these facts did become clear, they were simply ignored.”

Most reporters, in Peppiatt’s words, “aren’t comfortable with constantly walking the conceptual tightrope between telling the truth and lying, and certainly not with breaking the law.”

Peppiatt pinned the blame partly on the Press Complaints Commission’s lacklustre efforts to enforce their own code — but also on the legislated culture of corporate bullying that let those stories get into print in the first place. Peppiatt himself was employed on a casual contract, where the prospect of dismissal at any moment was “a powerful deterrent against sticking your head above the trench if you disagree with something that is occurring.” In either case the conclusions are the same.

“Is it any surprise that newspapers push the boundaries, hacking phones, bribing police, pursuing their own commercial and ideological aims under the cloak of journalism, with reporters used as the foot soldiers?”


One Comment on “The Leveson Inquiry & Employment Law”

  1. […] published in The Morning Star, 30/11/2012. See here for my previous posts on Leveson and the massive blind spot of employment […]

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