Inquiry hears 'fear is real' at British papers

29th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

A journalist who played a key role in uncovering phone hacking at the News of the World tabloid described a "culture of bullying" at British newspapers where he said the "fear is real".

Nick Davies, a reporter with The Guardian newspaper, told the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics that his sources on newspapers' use of voicemail interception were genuinely fearful of recriminations and preferred to be kept anonymous.

"You've got to make these people safe, and the first step almost all the time is a guarantee of anonymity," Davies told the hearing in central London.

"There is a culture of bullying in some Fleet Street news organisations," he said.

The "fear is real" among employees of tabloids when they speak to him about practices used at their newspapers, which is why they have spoken on condition of anonymity, he said.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid, Britain's biggest-selling weekly paper, was closed down in July amid an outcry about the hacking of a teenage murder victim's voicemails.

Davies said between 15 and 20 former News of the World journalists had spoken to him or his researcher on condition of anonymity.

He was giving evidence on a day when the inquiry switched its focus from alleged victims of hacking to journalists.

Davies said that as a result of the scandal, he now thought the British newspaper industry was not capable of regulating itself.

"The history of the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) profoundly undermines the whole concept of self-regulation," he said.

"I don't think that this is an industry that is interested in, or capable of, self-regulation.

"I do not trust this industry to regulate itself. I say this as I love reporting, I want us to be free.

"You have a huge intellectual puzzle in front of you. How do you regulate a free press? But it obviously doesn't work, we are kidding ourselves, if we think it would. Because it hasn't."

Davies said he wanted to see a "public interest advisory body" established so that journalists and the wider public could seek advice on whether stories were in the public interest, as the interpretation was very wide.

He gave an example of The Guardian's handling of the US diplomatic cables on Afghanistan obtained by the WikiLeaks website.

"It became apparent that the material contained information which could get people on the ground in Afghanistan seriously hurt," he said.

"They are implicitly identified as sources of information for the coalition forces."

But Davies alleged that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told him: "They deserve to die, they are informers, they are collaborators."

Davies added: "I would love to have been able to go to a specific advisory body and say, 'Where is the public interest here?' in order to be able to show it to him, to persuade him."

He said newspapers should be required by law to correct stories which are demonstrably false, giving the corrections equal prominence as the original stories.

© 2011 AFP

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