Dear Sir,

Donald Trelford (‘Entitled to private lives like everyone else' – Daily Bulletin, Nov 24) deserves commendation for his highly incisive comments on the Leveson Enquiry into the media.

Like him, as a now veteran newsman – though, unlike the former Observer editor, a red top exec, who, in those halcyon days, had ‘only one foot in the gutter', as a colleague once kindly described me – I'm appalled and incensed by some of the excesses committed by the contemporary tabloids especially, though by no means exclusively.

And, like your columnist, I, too, always questioned the wisdom of having a snapper and reporter camped outside a subject's home, just because an ad hoc Press pack was laying siege to the premises.

Indeed, as Mr. Trelford says, it rarely produced anything newsworthy and was financially counter-productive.
Plus, it was predictable, lazy journalism – as was hiring private eyes to ferret out turgid trivia about the secret lives of frequently transient celebs.

In fact, there lies the cause and effect: the mainstream media's obsession with the cult of celebrity, stoked by incessant reality TV pap. It's a symbiotic relationship, flea feeding off donkey.

But, oh how the gullible public lap it all up (see Sun or Daily Mail circulation figures and The X Factor audience ratings). Meanwhile, genuine human interest stories about real people, which other real people can relate to, are summarily dismissed by news editors as passé. Thankfully, however, there remains enough journalistic integrity for in-depth, investigative reportage and campaigning.

And even the brash tabloids can perform a stellar roll in delivering it, because it isn't the exclusive domain of the serious media.
So, despite its infamy, the late News of the World produced some fine examples of each and I cite the following as a flavour: supporting Sarah's Law, to name and shame paedophiles; promoting the Military Covenant, by highlighting the plight of ex-servicemen; outing crooked fixers in the world of sport; and waging an undercover war on criminal, illegal immigrants, drug barons and sex-slave traffickers.

By definition, pop journalism is intended to inform and entertain (according to one of its founding fathers, Hugh Cudlipp, it was also meant to educate).

Yet, more often than not, today it relies on innuendo, smear and intrusion, all of which or singularly can sometimes be illicit (i.e. phone-tapping).
The malady is also viral, because, when one journo jumps ship to another publication, he/she imports a fresh take on the ‘dark arts'. Thus the infection spreads. So, if an editor claims to be unaware of the back-story as to how the information on a Page One splash was obtained, they are either stupid or being highly economical with the truth.

Conversely, the dangers of a controlled Press – France, where corrupt politicians can hide behind the country's Bastille of strict privacy laws, is a fair example – are an affront and threat to democracy.

Such official handcuffs would also offer no protection to legitimate whistleblowers, whose information the public needs and deserves to learn about (i.e. of late, the Daily Telegraph's scoop on the MPs expenses scandal and the Wikileaks revelations).

So how do Judge Leveson and the media itself square the circle of the needs of a free Press with an individual's entitlement to privacy?
Both might start with a radical overhaul of that toothless tiger, the Independent Press Complaints Commission, whose edicts are often weak and risible.

A beefier IPCC, led by a tough-minded and respected chairman, should require newspapers to publicise apologies on the front of their titles, not bury a ‘correction' for a misdeed away at the foot of some obscure, inside page, which readers rarely bother browsing.

Mea culpas should have the impact of embarrassing the culprit publication into taking more care.
Currently, they don't.
The papers themselves might also pay closer attention to the training of young journalists.
Too often many are products of cloistered, university-fed theory, leapfrogging over the hurdle of nitty-gritty experience, gained from years toiling on local weeklies or regional evenings, by going straight to the dizzy heights of ‘traineeships' on nationals, which, take it from me, are no places for novices.

For all their diplomas, these kids lack real, hands-on experience of reporting – borne from honing a nose for news at local courts, vicarage tea parties, councils and banal parish-pump events – on which previous generations of journos had to cut their teeth.

Think about it: would you like a demi-qualified quack taking out your appendix?

The same applies to paparazzi, mainly unprincipled chancers with cameras, who pale in the shadows of the creative, professional lensmen I had the privilege of working alongside.

I don't envy Lord Leveson and his enquirers.
But, although we didn't always do or get everything right in the days of yore, maybe looking backward offers a better route forward.

Hugh Ash
Portals Nous

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