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Neil Wallis

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What Delight for The Guardian and BBC: Leveson 1 Press Freedom 0

Posted: 23/08/2012 09:42

Lord Justice Leveson, your work here is done.

In just a few short months you have managed to do what the massed phalanxes of the Guardian and BBC have been trying to do for years but failing.

You have neutered the great British press, and made it a laughing stock.

And that is a damned disgrace.

I am, of course, talking about Fleet Street's collective decision this morning to cave in and not dare to publish perfectly good pictures of a naked Prince Harry that are all over the internet and being printed in newspapers all over the rest of the world.

They are classic British newspaper fodder, and quite rightly so - Third in line to the throne gets drunk as a skunk on holiday, meets up with a gaggle of starstruck local girls, gets naked, and is photographed acting inappropriately.

The pictures got taken on a mobile phone and were published, of course, because of the Prince's unwise choice of stripping acquaintances who he picked up around his Las Vegas hotel swimming-pool...

There are some serious issues - security, he does have a public position to maintain, who are the girls, etc - but essentially it is just a bloody good story.

The pictures don't even really reflect on him that badly - Prince Harry is highly liked by the British public who I reckon are saying "Good on yer!"

By the early hours today 500,000 Americans had voted in a fun "Awesome v Disgraceful" poll on the site TMZ that revealed the pictures, almost twice the combined circulations of the tabloid-hating Guardian and Independent here (Awesome won 2-1, BTW).

So why are you and me banned from looking at them in the papers we trust to spend our money with every morning? Why are Britain's journalists - I promise you, the very best in the world - too scared to run the snaps?

Because they're terrified of risking the opprobrium of Leveson's Law, of losing their jobs or their newspapers losing advertising revenue as a result, and so bottled it.

I feel so bad for those journalists who know they made the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons overnight, but had no choice - Leveson's Law rules in Britain's newsrooms today, not journalism and Editors.

And trust me, that's bad news for you in the long run.

As a result, you can stand on one side of the Irish border this morning and look at the pictures the world is talking about all over the front of Ireland's Evening Herald, while a metre away on the UK side of the border no news organisation dare show them.

And all for the wrong reasons.

Since I wrote my first Huffington Post blog on this yesterday, I have been on British TV, radio, and twitter (@neilwallis1) talking and warning about the chilling effect Leveson is having on press freedom that this incident illustrates so well.

Look at the newspapers today and you see my fears are proven correct.

The Sun has a game go and struggles through a Page One wipeout by knocking up a dodgy "lookalike" picture using their own reporter called Harry. Decent effort but no cigar.

Their deadly rivals at The Mirror, as at The Star, go for big wipeout scandal headlines like "Harry Naked Pics Row". Looks good, but are like a bacon sandwich with no bacon.

The Mail typically fumes furiously but impotently over FIVE pages at the way the royal family quickly moved to cover up their boy's indiscretions, headlining "Palace Fury at naked Harry pictures", while as usual huffing-and-puffing at the behaviour. But, to rip-off that old BurgerKing jingle, "Where's the Beefcake?".

It's absent - and so it depressingly goes on, with the broadsheets as usual telling the story by describing the tabloid and mid-market discomfiture.

It demonstrated yet again the brilliance of Paddy Harveson, the Prince's brilliant PR man, who moved like lightning to capitalise on the Leveson effect to prevent the pictures being published in Britain.

Instead, incredibly, we have the spectacle of papers writing, and broadcasters talking, about the the story they are NOT bringing you. How is that good for democracy, for press freedom?
But most of all it shows the depression that hangs over Britain's newsrooms and throughout our media organisations as a result of Lord Justice Leveson's Inquiry that they have had to put up with this nonsense.

I promise you, CEOs were scuttling down the corridors from Deep Carpet Land to their Editors offices yesterday to make sure nothing silly like actually running the big story was going to happen - and as a ex-tabloid Editor and Deputy Editor I have to tell you that I don't blame either the CEO or the Editor for their decisions not to publish, wrong in principle though it is.

As you know the Leveson Inquiry on press standards and behaviour was set up last year as a result of the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed the News of the World. It was set up in a panic by Prime Minister David Cameron following Guardian allegations - later proved totally false - that people acting on behalf of the paper not only hacked murder victim Milly Dowler's mobile (dreadful enough) but actually erased messages from it, so apparently giving her tragic parents false hope she may be still alive.

Lord Leveson began his Public Inquiry in November 2011 amid significant public concerns. Unfortunately, instead of becoming a genuine investigation that some felt was necessary it became a year-long witch-hunt of the tabloid and mid-market press.

Objectivity was thrown out of the window as a parade of whinging self-serving celebrities and ne'er-do-wells, trailing a pack of expensive self-serving lawyers, were allowed to give their highly-partial take on sporadic incidents going back 20 years. They were backed up by the usual procession of left-wing academics and hacks no-one reads explaining why they should decide what the masses be allowed to read.

Most significantly, the baying of these self-interested parties for statuary legislation allowing politicians and lawyers to the conduct of the press became deafening - a situation that anyone sentient involved in journalism or the media knows must be avoided at all costs.

The print media knows that if Lord Justice Leveson recommends statutory legislation in his final report, then it would be extremely difficult for a weak mob-pleasing PM like Cameron to resist.

It is important to stress that there were also undoubtably heart-rending and shocking witness accounts at Leveson by ordinary people who had become tragically caught up in the national newspaper machine, who had suffered disgraceful and undeserved wrongs. But they were over-shadowed by the showboaters His Lordship allowed to dominate his courtroom.

The cumulative effect of the threat of legislation; those months of sneering, partial, attack at Leveson; combined with the oppressive reality of the Metropolitan Police's steamroller investigations into phone-hacking and associated issues (which has led to the arrests of dozens of journalists including myself) has been a collapse of confidence in Britain's national newspapers.

As I said here yesterday "Stories about disgraced MPs, high society vice rings, cheating married celebrities, philandering tycoons, have all but disappeared from the papers. Not because they're not there - trust me, they never go away - but because even if you can get them past the lawyer you are still to scared to try and get them past His Lordship."

Well, the logical conclusion of that is playing out in your newspapers this morning, with the absence of the naked Prince Harry photos that the rest of the world is chuckling about but which the British media is currently too scared, too cowed, to show you.

 

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