A clutch of regional newspaper editors yesterday gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on press standards – the first time the industry has had a chance to put its view on the future regulation of the press.
Over the course of four hours the inquiry heard from eight editors drawn from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
They were: Maria McGeoghan, editor of the Manchester Evening News, Scotsman editor John McLellan, Mike Gilson of the Belfast Telegraph, Peter Charlton of the Yorkshire Post, Spencer Feeney of the the South Wales Evening Post, Nigel Pickover of the Ipswich Evening Star, Jonathan Russell of The Herald, Glasgow, and Noel Doran, editor of the Irish News
Here is a round-up of what they had to say on some of the key issues being dealt with by the inquiry.
Print versus online
John McLellan said he believed tablet devices were the future – but Mike Gilson insisted that “the old inky product” is not dead yet.
Said John: “I think the good news such as it is just now will come in the form of tablet apps, Kindle devices and things like that, because what they are doing is reconnecting an electronic audience with the principle of paying for what they are reading.
“The basics of online readership is that the readers expect to read what they get on the screen for nothing, and the new way of reading on tablets and on phones is that people are relearning that they have to pay for some of these services, so if there is a brighter future it’s in being able to sell our services to tablet users.”
However Mike added: “The old inky product is not dead. If you listen perhaps in this room and to other self-appointed media gurus, you would believe that would be the case. I think there is still a big, big market for a physical in-the-hand product and I’m certainly not as pessimistic as some others.”
The future of the Press Complaints Commission
Nigel Pickover, who had previously called for the PCC to be retained for the regional press with a separate body covering the nationals, appeared to concede defeat in his campaign to save the watchdog.
Lord Leveson asked him: “If your experience of the PCC has been perfectly satisfactory, are accepting of the need because of national events for there to be a change.”
Nigel replied: “I am indeed. I think there is an expectation that we’ll beef things up and change certain things but we shouldn’t throw out the good things that the PCC does.”
Peter Charlton added: “I think the PCC have done a very good job for the regional press. I think there is probably an expectation from the public, and indeed the industry, that there will be change.”
Coverage of murder cases
Nigel Pickover contrasted the behaviour of his own title during the spate of Ipswich murders in 2006 with that of national newspapers.
At the time The Star reported a legal expert as saying: “Some outlets, national newspapers, rushed to name men as suspects without official confirmation and there has been the ever-present risk of contempt of court and risk to fair trial.”
Asked by Lord Leveson if he would endorse those words, Nigel said: “I would. We were very, very careful about the law. There was a celebrated photograph of the man who was eventually convicted that raised eyebrows and we wouldn’t have published that photograph. It was published in the national press.”
Lord Leveson commented: “This has echoes with what happened almost four years later in Bristol when something similar happened but with profound consequences because they got the wrong man.”
Use of pictures
In his witness statement, Peter Charlton cited use of graphic pictures as another example of the difference between national and regional press.
He wrote: “On the day Colonel Gadaffi was captured and killed, photographs of his corpse were available to us and widely used in the national newspapers and by television.
“We took the view that our readers would find such images upsetting and gratuitous, so decided against their use.”
He added: “The journalism of the regional press is honest journalism that is the product of honest endeavour and lawful means of inquiry. The practices which prompted the formation of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry do not, and never have, played any part in our journalism.”
Lord Justice Leveson suggested that stories no longer had a “shelf life” because they remained forever on the internet, creating among other things a potential risk of jurors being prejudiced by going online.
But the editors resisted the idea that old stories be removed from the web.
Jonathan Russell said: “As long as archive newspapers are kept, I don’t personally see a huge difference, just because it’s easier to access it online than go to the national library. I don’t see why that means we should be taking stories off-line when they’re still available in other places.”
Mike Gilson added: “Once it’s out there as a story that someone did something 10 years ago, it’s just out there, it’s a matter of record. I’m not so sure that’s necessarily a bad thing.”