The Leveson Inquiry, Paul Dacre and what I should have asked Kelvin Mackenzie

I was down at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press this week.

It is being called the phone hacking inquiry, although it’s clear to all that it’s brief is far wider than just looking at why a few papers hacked into people’s mobile phone voicemail.

I was attending a seminar of those who may have useful information for the inquiry. There were a few invited speakers, and much discussion from the floor, and we were all asked to consider making submissions of evidence to the inquiry to assist it.

There were two big-hitting speakers on the day I was there – in the morning Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre  and in the afternoon, former Sun editor, Kelvin Mackenzie. Both men are Fleet Street legends, though very different in their style and content of what they said.

Mackenzie’s speech had been given to the media beforehand and made the front page of that night’s Evening Standard – you can read the full text here.

It was a barnstorming performance, but how much light it shed on tabloid practice, I’m not so sure. Learning his opinion of Prime Minister David Cameron – pretty low – was fascinating, but it did not move the debate on press ethics anywhere very much.

Less well-headlined was Paul Dacre’s address, which you can read here, in which he made a significant concession to those seeking a tougher regulatory system.

He said that he would be prepared to look at an ombudsman system for the press – perhaps a retired judge supported by two retired editors. The ombudsman, he said, might have the power to investigate wrongdoing and even levy fines.

It was quite a bombshell given that the previous week’s seminar had seen editors queuing up to support the current system of self-regulation. Dacre came in a few days later and proceeded to pull the rug out from under them.

But his speech begged a few questions.

Is the ombudsman a replacement for the Press Complaints Commission, or a supplement to it as a ‘court of last resort’?

Will the ombudsman have statutory force, compelling the industry to pay fines as Ofcom does?

Will there be statutory compulsion of the whole industry to come under the ombudsman’s authority – thus answering the questions many asked last week regarding the Daily Express and Daily Star’s withdrawal from the PCC?

Some attending believed Dacre had thrown the ombudsman line into his speech at the last moment, knowing that it would cause consternation among those listening, but not really being too concerned with the fine detail.

Myself, I’m with those who thought it was something more strategic. Perhaps Dacre has seen which way the wind is blowing and wants to try to shape the more stringent regulatory system that is approaching post-Leveson.

As Lord Justice Leveson said when he summed up: this is just the beginning of the beginning, there is much, much more to come in this inquiry.

As for Kelvin Mackenzie’s contribution, I laughed along with many of the audience, and only afterwards did I consider one of the things he said.

He was asked about The Sun’s influence and whether, after the 1992 general election when the paper ran the headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” – and headline for the ensuing Conservative victory “It’s the Sun wot won it”.

Just a bit of fun, he said, no-one would decide how to vote on the basis of a Sun headline.

The Sun has undoubtedly produced some of the most memorable front pages in recent years – from ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ to ‘Gotcha’.

The French have a saying – l’esprit de l’escalier – literally the wit of the staircase, meaning the things you think you ought to have said at the time, but only think of as you are climbing the stairs to bed. I had a moment of that an hour or so later as we digested the day’s events.

Not every Sun front page has been a ‘bit of fun’ and one in particular, printed on the Wednesday after the Hillsborough disaster, headlined ‘The Truth’ and which blamed fans for the events of the day, was anything but ‘fun’.

In the days when the police, the football authorities and the government should have been held to account for safety in football grounds – that front page took the pressure off them and laid the blame on those who could have done least to avert that catastrophe.

I was working in the North West at the time of Hillsborough. I attended funerals of the dead fans for my paper. I spoke to bereaved families. That front page was, and still is, shameful.

I could, and should, have asked Kelvin Mackenzie whether that was ‘just a bit of fun’ – but I missed my chance.

I’m sorry.

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