Thursday, 28 February 2013

Journalism Week 2013 - Neil Wallis, former Executive Editor of the News of the World

Possibly one of the most highly anticipated speakers at Journalism Week was Neil Wallis, lauded in our programme as a former editor of The People, Executive Editor of the News of the World, and member of the Press Complaints Commission.

He was one of many journalists arrested following the phone-hacking scandal in 2011 on charges of conspiracy to intercept mobile communications. Just recently the Crown Prosecution Service dropped their case against him, citing a lack of evidence to secure a conviction.

If there is a man more qualified or able to talk to us about the journalism industry and the Leveson proposals, then we haven't met them yet! Certainly, the tone was set before he even began with his presentation entitled "LEVESON: Devil in the Detail - Why Inquiry Report Threatens Press Freedom In More Ways Than One". Quite clear what his feelings on the reforms of the media are!

Neil was introduced by his former employee, and current Leeds Trinity Senior Lecturer in Media Law - appropriately enough! - Nigel Green. It was a perfect moment for Neil's phone to ring, and one wag in the audience (I have my suspicions about who!) shouted "It's Leveson!" to laughter all round.

Turning then to the serious, Neil was candid about his arrest, his bail and his subsequent exoneration - "It's scary. You feel like wetting yourself! It brings everything to a grinding halt - your life, your family, your career." The mood of the room was actually sympathetic, and it will be interesting to see if that holds up tomorrow when we're joined by Professor Brian Cathcart of the Hacked Off campaign, bitter ideological opponents to Mr Wallis and co.

Back to today, and Neil - cleared of all charges - has now set his sights on those arguing for the toughest of press reforms as proposed by the Leveson Inquiry. He painted a very convincing picture of the dangers of appointing a statutory regulator - specifically one backed by (and therefore dominated by) Parliament.

A Parliament, of course, that is wracked by scandal, corruption and ineptitude - see left!
There has been no end to the procession of crimes and misdemeanours of our elected leaders - exposed, naturally, by the Press they're now struggling to gag.

Hitting the topical angle, Neil referred to the Rennard scandal engulfing Nick Clegg's Lib-Dems, and how it was broken by a Journalist, those self-appointed detectives that the Deputy Prime Minister has made inadvisable enemies of!

Picture courtesy of @DMJHull

He spoke rousingly and charmed an audience of - I'll be honest - naieve journalism students who have been raised on a diet of cynicism towards the Government, even though their (our?) faith is still in the Guardian and the ethical correctness of the Leveson Inquiry. Nonetheless, it's clear to see how he was able to wield such influence over a Murdoch newsroom - and we're only seeing the beauty of charm and not the 'Wolfman' beast!

When the Q&A came around after a very quick half-hour, Neil made it clear how he'd tackle press reform. Trinity Journalism Graduate, and next Paxman Ben Cropper asked him if the Press Complaints Commission - of which Neil had sat on the board as a tabloid Editor - was a "toothless watchdog".
Neil responded forcefully that the PCC simply lacked stronger investigative powers - which seems surprising as the main complaint against the PCC seemed to be its lack of punitive strength instead. As an editor, however, Neil stated how he spoke to the PCC practically every day, checking the suitability of his stories - and is that a comment on other editors who might not have held to that admirable practice? He made it clear that "People were not arrested becase they broke the Editors Code of Conduct - they broke the law. The PCC couldn't stand in the way of that."

At one point he turned the entire Q&A on its head and asked us at one point we'd fall back on that tried and tested method of chequebook journalism. I couldn't tell if the silence that greeted him was moral in fibre, or just squirming! A few hardy souls ventured to admit they'd pay out for stories, and uppermost in my mind was securing the Telegraph scoop on the Expenses scandal. It was an interesting moral conundrum, and he continued the theme when asked if there was indeed a culture of criminality amongst the tabloids - "No, but I know a lot of journalists who sail bloody close to the wind!"

It's fair to say Journalism has always operated in the 'grey' areas, both morally and legally - indeed, it's probably where it's most needed. I had decided long before this session to get into this as far as possible, and tweeted a former Journalism Week guest - infamous tabloid apostate Richard Peppiatt. 

I asked Richard what I should specifically put to Neil, considering their naturally opposing viewpoints on a common topic. By the wonders of modern technology, the link to the right will show you all of Neil's talk and at 43:35 I am the person who asks the question - "Regarding press freedom, which you have discussed extensively and proudly, how do you reconcile it with the fact that all 175 titles owned by Murdoch simultaneously supported the Iraq War?"

The response I get is somewhat confusing - not certain that I would describe Rupert Murdoch's work as "left-of-centre papers". Nor would I describe all of his titles as "not being huge opinion formers." And his decision to mention the 'Editor of the Times' as opposing proprietorial influence seems laughably inappropriate!

Raising the most eyebrows, of course, is Neil's vehement response to Mr Peppiatt which came across as a violet drubbing. No less energetic is his attack moments later on Professor Cathcart, but Richard himself has already been responding to the comments via Twitter and the Journalism Week hashtag #ltjw until just recently, several hours after the talk has concluded!

Will the Hacked Off campaign respond equally forcefully to this tabloid supremo turned press freedom fighter? No doubt there will be even more exciting developments as Journalism Week comes to an end for another year, continuing the theme whereby I ask impertinent questions of important people!

Until tomorrow...!

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