“Do as I say, don’t look at what I do...’ Britain’s columnist kleptocracy

I will not be discussing your guesses.

For legal reasons — and out of a measure of kindness — etc amen, the issue central to this newsletter is set out in a ‘no names, no pack drill’ basis. Here goes:

Imagine a newspaper reports on an individual pleading guilty for one of the most serious categories of crime. Imagine too that said individual is the partner of a current columnist of the newspaper. What should the paper do? 

Well, there are a few options:

  • temporarily bench the columnist so they have time to deal with things, while still paying them 

  • append a disclosure to columns that appear for a certain period 

  • add a disclosure if there is anyway what the columnist has written could be considered to touch on issues related even tangentially to the case 

  • work with the columnist on a piece that directly addresses the criminal conviction 

In the British media — unlike the American press — such transparency and disclosures are virtually non-existent. The partner — or ex-partner — of a current senior newspaper columnist was recently in court to plead guilty to possessing the most serious category of child sexual abuse imagery but the newspaper they work for did not mention the connection at all. They simply ignored it. 

It is not sensible or ethical for a writer to continue to opine of moral issues and other issues in the news when their partner/ex-partner is in the news. Nor is it acceptable to write, for a living, about yourself and your home life, pretending that such a major issue has not happened. People will argue privacy but newspapers rarely extend that courtesy to combatants in the culture war they declared who are no employed by them. The press and media give their own special protection. They rally round the fake flag. 

IPSO — the Potemkin press regulator born of the Leveson Inquiry — does nothing to deal with these ethical bankruptcies. I put several calls into the regulator for comment on this story and I received no answers. 

Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, and co-founder of Hacked Off told me: 

IPSO is designed to fail the public. There is no provision in its code of practice for ethics or conflict of interest. There is no pressure on newspapers to be better. 

Remember when Peter Oborne left The Telegraph over the paper’s conflicts of interest? There was total disbelief in large parts of the press. They simply did not feel agitated at all about conflicts of interest. 

Peter Jukes, the co-founder of the investigative journalism site Byline Times, argued persuasively to me how things should be: 

In America, you have to declare interests. A columnist whose partner was in the news could still write, but any column touching on a subject that might be seen as related to that issue would have to carry a declaration of interest. 

Jukes believes that the worst conflicts of interest in the British press are in book reviews, where friends regularly review friends and books by writers who work for a particular newspaper get extra coverage and an easy ride.

The area that most vexes me — beyond the obvious issue of political/social corruption that rides high above all other transgressions — is that of freebies.

You will encounter many undeclared freebies in the British press, particularly the Sunday newspapers. Again, in the United States, journalists simply cannot take gifts above a certain value, and lower value gifts must be declared publicly. In Britain, it is very often quite literally a free for all… who have a byline photo. 

IMPRESS — Independent Monitor for the Press — the independent press regulator, which attempts to be fully compliant for the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, was willing to answer my questions on ethics.

No national newspaper is regulated by IMPRESS. Its membership is predominantly made up of local papers, independent investigative websites, and campaigning political publishers. 

A spokesperson for IMPRESS directed me to the organisation’s Standards Code, particularly the elements that focus on ‘sources’ and ‘transparency’. They said: “With respect to complaints handling, IMPRESS requires publishers to disclose how they will manage conflicts and we approve those. Our advice is always to refer to our Standards Code and guidance in detail.” 

Could that be, perhaps, one reason why the national newspapers cling so desperately to the sinking ship that is IPSO — a regulator that neither makes them better nor effectively protects the press? That’s my contention, but the nationals would deny it vociferously. 

In the same way that I believe we have not a democracy, but the performance of democracy, in which the same class and business interests are predominant, regardless of what colour of government controls Number 10, I believe our press is only ‘free’ in name only. 

A free press has a genuine plurality of voices. It is not owned by a small number of millionaires and billionaires. A free press would allow ‘sacred cows’ to genuinely be slaughtered. It would let writers publish pieces calling for the removal of the Royal Family, and for socialism, without allowing them to be framed as dangerous. It would let more than one left-wing columnist write for any particular newspaper at one time. 

Bill Hicks had a routine where he compared American foreign policy, geared around selling weapons to poorer countries, then choosing to invade them to deal with the danger, as like a scene in Shane, the western with Jack Palance. In that movie -- at least in Hicks’ retelling -- Palance throws a gun at the feet of a sheepherder and commands him to ‘pick up the gun’.

The sheepherder tries to say ‘no’ because he is afraid Palance will shoot him. Finally, he is bullied into ‘picking up the gun’ and he’s shot by dead by Palance instantly.

That’s what happens in the British media on a daily basis -- while many columnists and editors act in a kleptocratic way, cosying up to vested interests, and making excellent money for themselves, their friends, and their families — the newspapers push vulnerable people to ‘pick up the gun’. The media goads isolated groups to fight back and, when they do, when they ‘pick up the gun’, they get coldly shot down. 

But when one of the media’s own is linked to some true horror, like say, the abuse of children. Well, they don’t have to pick up the gun. They can, in what sounds like a terrible film that Kenneth Williams would never have appeared in -- Just Carry On In Silence. 

That has to change.