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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Monstering - part 3

In my two previous blogs on the story of Lucy Meadows, I've mentioned that the press have been very reluctant to comment on their reporting of the story. There's nothing surprising about this, even if it's regrettable. That's just the way the press are. Yesterday, however, a blog appeared giving an alternative view of the 'hysteria' surrounding the death of Lucy Meadows, and offered a tabloid take. It makes for  interesting reading. I'll be quoting quite extensively from the blog, but it might be an idea to follow the link and read it first: http://tabloidtrolls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-hysteria-around-lucy-meadows.html.

First a couple of general points. It's a shame the blogger is anonymous and also that the news editor mentioned in the blog is too. I don't doubt the veracity of what's said - it's just preferable when people go on the record.

Secondly, and, for me, very revealingly, at not stage does the writer, or the news editor he or she quotes, address the crucial question of whether the reporting of Lucy's story was in the public interest. I suspect the only reason it was picked up by the nationals was that it tickled them, or fitted an agenda, and as it had already been placed in the public domain by the Accrington Observer, they could help themselves, with some help from a news agency. I doubt anyone stopped to think for a second whether there was any public interest in the story being published. Maybe they did. Our anonymous blogger doesn't help us on that point. The public interest isn't even mentioned even though it's in the PCC Code of Practice which, we are told, the press 'live in fear' of.

But on to the detail.

'Yet there are problems with all this assumption of 'monstering' and 'hounding'. 

Firstly the dates. Having read a selection of the coverage above, over how long a period would you think Lucy was pursued by rabid packs of journalists and photographers? A week? Two weeks? 

In fact the answer seems to be one day, at most two. 

Does it really matter for how long it went on for? The fact is, for Lucy, those one or two days must have been hell. At the time she wouldn't have known the carnival would move on in a day or two. All she knew is that photographers and journalists were at her door and her story was in the national press. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of shock.

The story broke via a local newspaper on Wednesday 19 December 2012 and was picked up to be published in a handful of regional and national newspapers - The Manchester Evening News, Metro, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Star - the following day.

Yeah, just a handful. With a combined readership of nearly eight million people...and that's before we get to websites and page hits etc.

Most have exactly the same quotes which suggests they relied on the same agency report and did not send their own staff reporters to cover the story.

Would these 'same quotes' be the anonymous ones that seem to have been added to conjure up a greater sense of outrage?  This comment, like others, indicate the amount of power news agencies have. They produce the copy and, apparently, the regional national hacks just re-nose, re-jiggle and in it goes. In my days an an agency hack, the national's regional men and women would often ask for numbers to check quotes or get their own. Not now it seems. It's straight in the paper with a bit of garnish.

The school broke up on Friday 21st December - so the maximum number of days when Lucy could have been staying late and going through the back garden to get to and from work while avoiding pursuit was two. 

And how many reporters or photographers were involved? A dozen? 20? More?'

That's still two hellish days for a very vulnerable person to endure. And just as it doesn't matter whether it was two or twenty days of monstering, it doesn't matter whether it was two or twenty people at her gate. All it takes is one photographer to take a photo (and seven others to stand around talking about lenses and moaning about expenses). A photo Lucy didn't want them to take. As soon as that was clear,  they should have gone.

The news editor of a national newspapers who covered the initial story said: "It wasn't a very big story for us at all....

Which begs the question, 'Why print it in the first place?' This might not have been a big story for you. For Lucy, it was her life.

'... We went out on it for one day only. The local agency, Cavendish, did too. From what I can establish the Mail didn't even send anyone....'

So the Mail just rewrote agency copy without checking it? Was that how the quote from a ten-year-old slipped into their story, even though it's hard to see how it could have been obtained without breaking the Code of Practice?

'There was only a handful of people there for one day, two or three. I have no idea where the suggestion that parents were offered bribes for a picture comes from. It just doesn't ring true. We didn't ask anyone to do that and I'm sure no one else did. You'd just get in trouble."

The suggestion that parents were offered 'bribes' (interesting use of word; the accusation was that they were offering parents money to take a picture) came directly from one of Lucy's email's. I know from experience of being a hack, that when you start digging around and rumours spread that you're digging around, people can become prone to exaggeration. But there's rarely smoke without fire. I can believe that the press were asking for photos of Lucy and might have 'suggested' someone took one. It just rings true.

We're then told that the story wasn't used in the 'high profile' way that The Guardian and Independent said....

The Sun, for instance, carried the story only only page 35. It barely ran to 150 words and was relatively balanced in its view on whether parents were for or against the teacher's decision to come back in the January term as a woman.

Its parental reaction in full was as follows: 'Parents had a mixed reaction to the announcement. Dad-of-three Wayne Cowie, 35, said Nathan [Lucy's name before her announcement], who has taught at the school for four years, had been seen dressed as a woman while shopping in the town.

He added his son was now coming back from school "asking about transvestites. My lad is very confused and upset about it." But Rebecca Briggs, 33, who has two children at the school, said: "There are only three people who have complained. The rest of us fully support Mr Upton and his transition. All the children love him and will continue to do so when he is Miss Meadows.".'

Online, the story is more than 350 words. Rebecca Briggs' quote doesn't feature. Neither does it feature in The Daily Mail's story or any of the others I've seen. 

Despite the widespread depiction of the Press Complaints Commission being toothless, in fact newspapers live in fear of having an adjudication made against them and almost invariably leave someone alone as soon as requested.

As the PCC website explains: "In cases where someone is in a particularly vulnerable state and does not wish to speak to a journalist, we can help by sending out a message to editors making clear that the person does not wish to speak, before any such approach is made.." In practice this process takes place in just a few hours. If Lucy had requested 'the dogs be called off', they would have been - that very day. 

It's almost certain Lucy didn't know this. I'd wager few people do. When you're at the centre of a media storm, as Lucy understandably felt she was, it takes a calm cookie to go online or pick up a phone and find out what your rights are according to the PCC (or realise that you have any rights).

And if the PCC explains 'In cases where someone is in a particularly vulnerable state and does not wish to speak to a journalist...' then what the f*** are a bunch of hacks and photographers doing hanging around outside that person's house when she has already made it clear she doesn't want to speak to them. 'Call the dogs off'? Er, how about, 'Don't act like dogs?'

I have investigated and written this as a defence of legitimate and lawful news gathering. 

You've achieved the opposite. It reads like an indictment and no one's explained why the news gathering in this case was legitimate.

I make no comment on Littlejohn. But like or loathe him - and from what I have read this week thousands of people want him not just sacked but dead - I think anyone who claims he caused Lucy's death is as guilty of wrong reporting as the very newspapers they hold in such contempt.

On this I agree: Littlejohn did not cause Lucy Meadows to take her own life. The monstering, appalling as it was, did not directly cause her to take her own life. There were probably many factors. But the simple fact is that being fed into the mangle of the British press couldn't have helped, could it?
Post script: 20 minutes after I finished writing this I read that the inquest into Lucy's death, as is normal, had been opened and adjourned without hearing evidence. But one new fact which did emerge was that Lucy had attempted to take her own life at least twice before. Coroner Michael Singleton told the short hearing: “I understand there have been previous attempts to commit suicide. I don’t know if they are relevant or not.”

If Lucy had made other attempts to take her own life, then is it clear how vulnerable she was. Which makes her treatment by the press even more unforgiveable. Journalists aren't stupid. Despite what journalists might say, photographers aren't either. Their knowledge of transgender issues might not be expert, but they would be aware that a person undergoing the transition that Lucy was would be in vulnerable state. They and their news editors, at the locals, nationals or a news agency, would also be aware there no was defence of public interest in this story. Yet they still hung around at her door, and snooped around the school gates. Or fed what was given to them by a news agency who did all that on  their behalf. All, it seems, without a second thought to the effect it might have on Lucy and her life.

I've attended many inquests as a reporter. They do not exist to apportion blame (one of the few inqusats I've been to when a coroner did was the blog I linked to at the top of this piece - when he directly blamed the press for causing Father Patrick Benjamin to take his own life) and there's every chance the coroner won't in Lucy's case. But even if that were to happen, it wouldn't excuse the behaviour of the press and it wouldn't lessen the terrible damage they inflicted on a vulnerable woman.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Here There be Monstering - a follow up

My blog about the reporting of death of Lucy Meadows, published yesterday, is already pretty lengthy and I don't want to keep adding and adding to it. But a few things have come to light since and I want to put them down. First of all, a few things that haven't happened:

i) The Accrington Observer and its reporter Stuart Pike still haven't responded to my attempts to contact them.

ii) No word from The Daily Mail yet either, beyond their reporter's promise to refer me to the Managing Editor's office.

I amended the original blog late last night when a reader emailed to point out that Mail Online had updated the Lucy Meadows story on March 12th. It seemed strange for them to have done so, eight or nine weeks after the story first appeared. I managed to find a cached version of the story and there were no obvious differences in the text. But there were four additional photographs. Three of them had been taken on Lucy's wedding day; two of them featured her wife. There was also another shot of Lucy when she was known as Nathan Upton, credited to Cavendish Press, the news agency who were involved in the story but won't comment on day-to-day operations.

It's not entirely clear why Mail Online took the photos down (though I have asked them.) But I do know their use caused Lucy great distress. They were lifted from the Facebook pages of members of her family without permission. Their use consitutes a clear breach of section 3 'Privacy' (i) of the Editors Code of the Conduct (in respect to Lucy and her wife). Lucy was aware of this. It seems likely that she complained to the PCC and as a result, on March 12th, the Mail removed the photos.

I contacted the PCC to try and find out details of Lucy's complaint. All they would say is: 'A complaint was resolved. We are not able to comment further at this point.' The resolved complaint is not on their website.

It's not clear what else might have formed the basis of Lucy's complaint. Let's face it, she wasn't short of things to complain about. She was clearly and understandably upset about the harassment by the press pack before Christmas, which forced her to leave her house by the back door first thing in the morning and stay at the school until late at night. Parents were also offered money to grab photos of Lucy (yet another clear breach of the Code of Practice). The drawing of Lucy by one of her pupils, which was widely used, was lifted from a cached version of the school website. Lucy had taken it down a few weeks before. Having that dredged up - ignoring all questions of copyright - when she had deleted it, must have felt like yet another intrusion. However, it had been on a public website viewable by all, so I presume the PCC must have ruled it was fair use (if, indeed, Lucy complained of its use...)

It also seems that many parents tried to offer supportive comments about Lucy to the press that were sniffing at the school gates, but these comments went ignored. I suppose it didn't fit their narrative of shock and outrage.

These new details make the monstering of Lucy Meadows even more troubling. Richard Littlejohn's piece was appalling, but the main sticks and stones were wielded by the press in those days before Christmas when the story first broke and Lucy's life, past and present, was invaded and ransacked.

The PCC appear to have acted when Lucy complained. We may never find out what she thought of the way they handled her complaint. If they did resolve her complaint on or around March 12th, that was little more than a week before her death. There is no obvious link between the two events, but it does seem the matter took some time to resolve.

Some people might take comfort in the fact that Mail Online took the photos down, particularly if it was based on a PCC ruling or request. They might believe it proves that self-regulation can have an effect. But it would be cold comfort. As this terrible story shows, the existence of the PCC and its Code of Practice does nothing to prevent serious breaches of the code. News agencies and newspapers often do as they please to present and illustrate a story in the way they see fit, regardless of the code. If a smack on the wrist comes along, as it seems to have done in this case, they'll take that chance. It merely means taking down photos on a story that's nearly two months old. That's not mjust closing the stable door when the horse has bolted - it's locking up when it's in a Tesco value burger.

The press needs a truly independent regulatory body whose existence and power forces a change in press culture, with teeth and sanctions that compel newspapers to think of the impact their stories will have on people's lives. Before the damage is done.

 *Thanks for people who have contacted me about the blog. I'd also like to thank Jane Fae (please visit her blog here) and Trans Media Watch.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Here There be Monstering

(Updated - see below)
The tragic and troubling death of Lucy Meadows has been dealt with in great detail elsewhere. For those who aren't aware of it, as a starting point I'd recommend you read David Allen Green's blogthis piece by Jane Fae and this Guardian article. I think it's self-evident to any decent human being that Lucy was appallingly treated. By my reckoning the reporting, the comment pieces and the monstering that followed was in breach of four articles of the Press Complaint Commission's Editor's Code of Practice*. But, despite being a worthy document, the Code of Practice is not worth the paper it is written on because so many newspapers ignore it daily, or only pay it heed when they've been caught breaking it.

While the wider implications of Lucy's death have been discussed, and the comment piece written by Richard Littlejohn has been dissected and castigated, the way in which her transitioning was reported has attracted less attention. But to look at how the story went from a local paper to the news pages and comment section of the nationals is both instructive and illuminating. It suggests that some local newspapers are now copying nationals in presenting stories in a sensational and prurient way, and how nationals stretch a story to give it as much impact as possible and/or fit their agendas. When I was a news agency hack, and we tried to spin stories so they would appeal to certain newspapers, the grizzled, sozzled ex-Express and Mirror hand I worked with had a stock of phrases he used to describe this process. 'Sprinkle it with stardust', 'Give it some topspin,' and the rather more bold, 'Don't let the facts fuck the story,' were just three.

As far as I can discover, the story first appeared on the Accrington Observer's website on December 19th. Here it is. The big question here for me is whether Stuart Pike, the reporter who wrote the story, or the newsdesk who told him to write it, were tipped off about the school's newsletter by Wayne Cowie, the aggrieved parent quoted in the piece. Or did they learn of the letter and decide to confect a row? Starting a row is meat and drink to journalists seeking to sass up a story. As a young agency hack, I remember being asked to rip a story out of the local newspaper. A woman had been cast to play God in the York Mystery Plays. An iteresting artsy piece for the local rag, but no line for us to sell onto a national. My boss asked me to phone the Archdeacon of York, a known right-wing rentagob. I told him about the casting. 'Political correctness gone mad!' he said. I wrote a story about how 'an unholy row' had erupted, and we had a story: it eventually made it into Time magazine. Sometimes tabloid journalism is as much about creating news as reporting it.

I've been in touch with both Pike and Cowie to see who was chicken and who was egg. Neither have replied. Experience tells me it was the Observer that sought out Cowie, and the newspaper thought there was nothing newsworthy about a story with the line 'Male teacher returns to school as female and everyone is fine about it.' They're wrong, as this excellent blog discovered. The editor of the Essex Chronicle agonised for hours over whether to publish a story about a teacher who had undergone the same transition as Lucy Meadows. He did, but rather than seeking out disgruntled parents, he wrote a positive story:

I'm still not sure a story like this warrants reporting. But I wonder whether the Accrington Observer also agonised over whether they should publish, or how they should present the article? I've asked them but, as yet, no reply. Even though they don't mention the shock or anger of any parents in the headline, they quote the school head, and mention the statement from Lucy asking for her privacy to be respected, before we get to Mr Mr Cowie.

'He said: 'He has had this teacher for three years. All of a sudden he is going to be coming to school after Christmas as a woman.

'They are too young to be dealing with that.'

Of course, some might think this says more about the views and prejudices of Mr Cowie than anything else, but even if you disagree with it, you have to admit he's entitled to his point of view and it's one some people would have sympathy with. No other parents or pupils are quoted though there is reference to the 'concerns' of 'some parents.'Are the concerns of one parent enough to warrant the story? I don't think so, and I don't think Stuart Pike does too, hence the hazy reference to 'some parents'.  But as I said, I think the newspaper believed that without some parental shock they didn't have a story. Of course, the right thing to have done here was drop it.

But they didn't. The article appeared on the Accrington Observer website at midnight on December 18/19th. Stuart Pike tweeted a link to the story at 9.57 a.m on the morning of the 19th.

Less than four hours later the story appeared on The Daily Mail's website, Mail Online. I'm going to concentrate on The Mail because as far as I can see it was first to follow up. The immediate difference is the headline, which alludes to 'shock' at the school about Lucy's transition. Then we have one of the famous Daily Mail drop intros. This is where you save the juicy information for the third or fourth paragraph, rather than sticking it in the first. A bit like this:

For editor Paul Dacre it was the stuff of dreams. 
That Wednesday had seemed a slow news day for the foul-mouthed tabloid supremo. But then his news editor let out a squeal of excitement. 
So Dacre, who had been bollocking a news desk underling within an inch of his life to ward off boredom, went to see what the fuss was about.
'A primary school has written a letter home to parents,' the news editor gasped. 'In the 'staff changes' section it says one of their male teachers will be coming back in the New Year as a woman.'
A sepulchral smile spread across the editor's florid face .'Get Littlejohn on the phone,' he barked....

The Mail loves this technique, mainly because it lends itself beautifully to the hatchet jobs they so enjoy. ('She is one of the most famous women in history. Millions of people look up to her as a paragon of chastity and purity. But troubling new evidence has emerged to cast doubt on her saintly image. Now the masses are wondering: was the Virgin Mary really a virgin?' and so on.)

You also don't have to be Noam Chomsky to realise this story, if presented in a certain way, appeals to the Mail's instincts. Political Correctness gone mad, innocent kiddies in turmoil, hopefully some angry middle-class parents people somewhere, and a chance to make out the modern world is turning into some kind of freak show. All Mail meat and drink. But there was no way the Mail would print the Accrington Observer story as it was. They know that one parent's disapproval does not even register a blip on their outrage-ometer. They needed more.

So, the digging began. Who did this is unclear. I worked for a news agency and I suspect the involvement of one here. That's hardly startling insight: a quick look at the Mail story reveals a photo of the school and copy of the letter, under the copyright of Cavendish Press, a successful Manchester-based agency. Their role in putting together the copy is a mystery. I contacted them and they said: 'I'm afraid we don't comment on our day to day operations.'  When I was at an agency, if a story like this broke, we'd try and get what pictures we could and add as many quotes as we could. We'd speak on the phone to the regional correspondent of the nationals who would ask some questions about the story, whether it stood up, ask for more information, or ask us for the numbers of the people we had spoken to so they could stand up it themselves and get some more information if necessary. But the story we'd written and filed would form the basis for the pieces that appeared in the newspapers the next day.

The other thing to note about a news agency is that they exist to sell stories and photographs. Unlike a local paper they aren't accountable to readers. Of course they have to make sure the information they sell is (relatively) reliable and accurate otherwise the nationals won't use their stuff, but they don't sign up to any code of conduct and their interests are served by selling a story to as many outlets as possible. Concepts of public interest don't really come into it. If a national is interested, then they'll do the work.

We don't know whether Stuart Pike's story was picked up by the agency, whether he tipped off the agency himself, or even tipped off the nationals and they asked Cavendish to dig on their behalf. As I said, Pike hasn't responded to my efforts to contact him.

It's clear, however, that between the Observer and the Mail story appearing online someone had been hard at work. As well as the GV of the school and the copy of the letter, and the photo of Mr Cowie, there's a child's drawing of Lucy when she was known as Mr Upton and which was lifted from the school website.

Someone had also spoken to Mr Cowie because his quotes are different, though oddly no one had got a new photo of him. They use the one that featured in the Observer even though it screams 'local paper!' Cavendish would have tried to get his photo, I guarantee, because an agency make nearly all their cash from photography, and the cheque for that picture went to the Manchester Evening News, owned by Trinity Mirror.

Perhaps Cowie was at work. Maybe he'd had enough of having his picture taken. Maybe he thought a camera could sap his special powers of insight into transgender matters. But he was still angry enough to add: ‘My middle boy thinks that he might wake up with a girl’s brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl’s brains...He’s a great teacher, but my kids are too young to be told about the birds and the bees like this.’

This is a far juicier, if more ludicrous, quote than the one used in the Observer. But, colourful though it is, it's tucked away at the end of the story. Instead we have 'a parent' who saw Mr Upton walking around town. Later we have 'another parent' quoted. Unattributed quotes in journalism are controversial. Sometimes they can't be avoided. For their own safety, or fear of losing their job, people don't want to be named. But in this case? Honestly, if someone isn't willing to go on the record or be named then surely leave their quote out of the story, or you risk the suspicion the quotes have been made up to fit an agenda, or make it appear as if more than just one parent is outraged. I have contacted James Tozer, who's bylined above the story, and I haven't had a response (as you can see, the press is all for openness and transparency until it comes to their own actions.)

There's no explanation why these two parents refused to be named, or even a clause that tells they refused to be named. ('A parent, who refused to be named...')  'Another parent' is quoted as saying, 'This is totally inappropriate. Any teacher who is going to change gender should also change schools,' which basically sums up the entire message of Richard Littlejohn's rant in the next day's newspaper.

Meanwhile, the entirely irrelevant but prurient detail that Lucy had been married when she was Mr Upton is included, and we learn that his former in-laws, an elderly couple, have been doorstepped even though Lucy was no longer married to their daughter and they have no connection with the school.

There is also this paragraph: 'A ten-year-old pupil said: ‘He spoke to us and said he’s going to be changing into a woman and wearing women’s clothes after Christmas.'

Article 6 of the Editor's Code of Practice reads: 'i) Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.' Reporters are not allowed to go onto school premises and interview kids - never mind any codes, that would be trespass - or even accost them at the school gates. The story had appeared on the Accrington Observer website at midnight. The Mail piece appeared 1.33pm the same day. The kids were at school that day. The reporter who supplied the story, or that quote, must have got it before the child went into school. At the school gates? As I said, that would break the Code of Practice. In fact, I'm struggling to think of any way that quote was obtained which doesn't break the Code unless it was the unnamed child of one of the unnamed parents already quoted, but even that begs questions of where and how the quote was obtained.

The Sun's online article doesn't have that quote. Nor does it have a time it was posted, but we can presume it was posted later on their website because it quotes a grandmother picking her granddaughter up from school. That quote, unnamed, is in support of Lucy and the school. Other than the head, the Mail piece has no quotes, named or otherwise, in support. (The Sun also quotes Tory Councillor Susie Charles who refuses to join in any condemnation. 'This is an entirely personal matter for the member of staff concerned. I am reassured that every care has been taken to ensure that the staff member and everyone at the school are fully supported.' These quotes are obviously garnish, a way to try and appear even handed even though the dirty work has been done in the headline, the pictures and the first few pars of the text but it's worth pointing out The Sun used them and The Mail didn't.)

To be fair, the Mail does quote the statements of Lucy and the school head at length, including her request for her privacy to be respected and the head's declaration that it was a 'personal matter.' Both comments went unheeded, as we now know. The Mail and other newspapers had decided it was a very public matter and the public interest outweighed any right Lucy had to privacy, and set up camp outside her house, even though their own code of conduct states clearly that 'Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.' (The full code of practice is here.)

Two other points that have struck me and others as odd: firstly, the Accrington Observer's Twitter feed usually promotes their front page and other stories each week. In the week of the Lucy Meadows story nothing at all was tweeted. Looking through the timeline, I can't find another week where that's the case. Anyone would think there was a story in their newspaper they might be ashamed of. Secondly, as noted by Jeremy Duns in a Twitter discussion I had with him and Archie Valparaiso, Stuart Pike tweeted about Lucy's death. There was no acknowledgement of his involvement, the previous story he wrote, or any remorse. Just a matter of fact link to the news story in the paper.

The story of Lucy Meadows death is a tragedy. The story of how her story was reported in the newspapers is very revealing about how the press operates.

*Since you ask, the four breaches of the code which I think are cut and dried are: children; privacy; harassment and discrimination.

Update: James Tozer has been in touch and apologized for not getting back to me sooner. I'm being referred to the managing editor's office. Watch this space.

Update II: A reader of the blog emailed and pointed out the Mail piece shows it was updated on 13:59, 12 March 2013. Some judicious googling and I found a cached version of the story from December 20th, the day after the story was first posted to the site. I'm not going to link to it because I think it was changed for a reason and that reason was that Lucy, or the women she married when she was Nathan Upton, or a member of their family, had complained because there were three pictures of Lucy's wedding day. There's also a picture of her when she was Nathan, credited to Cavendish Press.

The prurient and irrelevant detail of Lucy's previous marriage was made much more of, pictorially at least, in the original story. It must have made the Mail presentation's even more distressing for Lucy, and constitutes a real violation of her privacy. Here she was trying to move on, with the full support of the school, and the press were delving into her past. I'll check tomorrow to see if it was a complaint to the PCC which had them taken down.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hissy Fits and Harlots

The last thing the world needs now is another blog about Leveson and the Royal Charter that was voted in by Parliament this Monday. But what the hell.

For someone who passionately believes the press have abused their power for many years (and for a flavour of why then read this first), the past few days have been infuriating. The likes of Nick Cohen, a man who exists these days, in the words of Mark Thomas, to 'tell the left why the right are right from a left-wing perspective' (link) have seen all kinds of demons in the Charter. Presumably with the same glasses he saw lots of WMDs in Iraq. Nick and his liberal hating-chums have been very exercised by the Charter, its effect on a free press and free speech, and the activities of Hacked Off (a group of people who have been abused by the press, and whose lobbying has led them to be...abused by the press again.) There have been so many hissy fits and childish tantrums and so many hysterical lies and distortions spread since the weekend that it's difficult to know where to start, but let's try and address four of the sillier myths.

1. The events that led to the Leveson Inquiry were a failure of law-enforcement not regulation.

First of all this ignores the fact that there have been several public inquiries into press behaviour, each of which has given the press one last chance to reform itself. The Calcutt Report of 1990 was the latest last chance and led to the creation of the PCC. The culture of the press has been rotten for decades, long before journalists actually started breaking the law. The stench of decay and corruption grew worse during the 1990s because sections of the press knew the PCC was a joke and realised they could get away with anything. They had dodged a bullet with Calcutt, and it was back to business as usual. It was that culture of arrogance which led to endemic phone hacking and the wholesale use of private detectives to acces illegal information, not to mention the more old-fashioned techniques of monstering, bullying, lying and smearing. The PCC did nothing to prevent phone hacking. Worse, they accepted the NOTW's word when it lied and said it was confined to Goodman and Mulcaire. Does anyone honestly believe that a body which was manifestly independent of the press would have looked away so quickly? Or that newsrooms which truly feared censure for breaking a code of conduct, which they created for God's sake, would have allowed their reporters to act so cravenly, outsourced news-gathering to private detectives and signed off on vast payments to those private detectives?

And just how was the law to be enforced when so much was done to cover up the criminal behaviour at the NOTW and elsewhere? The, um, rather macho environment of most tabloid newsrooms meant that whistleblowing was non-existent. When the shit hit the fan, everyone, from the boardroom to the newsroom, ran around trying to cover their own arses rather than phoning the cops. The only way the cops might be able to enforce the law is if they stuck a policeman in the corner of every newsroom, which is plainly ludicrous. Even that wouldn't prevent half of the stuff that goes on, unless he's listening in on every phone call and following reporters when they meet sources. Otherwise, the best option is to create a code of conduct, enforce it and hope that over time the culture changes so that illegal behaviour is isolated rather than widespread, while ensuring that the code contains a conscience clause and protects whistleblowers who come forward with evidence of illegal newsgathering.

It's also a fact that this 'law-enforcement' argument is put forward by the same people, like Cohen and Susie Boniface aka Fleet Street Fox, who have been bleating about the police arresting journalists. You can't have it both ways. Saying it's a matter of law-enforcement and not regulation is just a weaselly, dishonest way of saying 'It was the cop's fault and not ours.'

2. The Charter is statutory regulation of the press.

No it isn't. As Mike Jempson of MediaWise says, The Recognition Body, which the Charter sets up,  'cannot tell the editors and proprietors what do do. It merely checks that the regulatory bodies they set up follow their own rules. What is unfair about that, when the public has had to put up with a series of failed efforts at self-regulation since 1953?' (link) The press sets up the regulatory body. They draw up the code to which it must comply (the code they already have is a good start. It's just that no one paid a blind bit of notice to it, because the cost of breaking it did not outweigh the juicer benefits of running a story obtained by breaking it.) What they can't do is choose everyone who sits on it, like they did last time (and which saw the likes of Paul Dacre and Neil Wallis sitting in judgement of issues that might affect their own newspapers). The Charter makes sure the process of choosing the panel is open and transparent. Terrible eh?

3. Leveson has already had an impact on legitimate investigative journalism. The Charter will make that impact worse.

Giving evidence, Michael Gove told Leveson his inquiry was having a 'chilling effect' on press freedom. It was so chilling that when 11-year-old Sebastian Bowles was killed in a coach crash in Switzerland, the Daily Mail thought for at least five seconds before it used a photo of his nine-year-old sister in tears. Even when the PCC  sent the newspaper a letter (or, like the big tough guys they were, told the family's solicitor to send a letter) asking them to stop using the photo, the Mail still had it on its website for weeks afterwards. They also grabbed several pictures from Sebastian's father's Facebook page. Menawhile, there were so many reporters and photographers outside the grieving family's house that they chose to go and live in Belgium to avoid the scrum. All this while Leveson was taking place.  'Chilling effect', my arse.

No one ever gives an example of a serious piece of investigative journalism that has been scuppered by Leveson. The Times did try, but the best it could come up with was...the suicide of former footballer and Wales manager Gary Speed. Newspapers had been scared away from delving into Speed's death, they said. His suicide was a personal tragedy for his family and friends. Many people wanted to know what made an outwardly happy man take his own life. That's human nature. But that doesn't mean we had any right to know. There was no public interest in grubbing around to find what events led to   Speed taking his own life, and it would have caused untold harm to Speed's family, who were devastated enough. Of course, had Leveson never happened, the tabloids would have hacked Speed's phone, his wife's and the rest of his friends and family and probably found out a few reasons. Damn that 'chilling effect.'

4. The Charter is a danger to a free press.

Ignoring the fact about what's free about newspaper owned by a few wealthy millionaires championing their own political agendas and business interests, I don't want to restrict the press. I don't know anyone who does. And no one has yet specified how an independent body would restrict a 'free press' unless restrict means 'stopping it doing what the bloody hell it pleases.'

Neither do I think there is any contradiction in being a liberal and supporting the charter. Rather than being a danger to our freedom, I think the existence of a body that holds the press to account, offers true redress to all the people the old PCC fobbed off, and by upholding a code of conduct that changes a rotten newsroom culture, will help protect our civil liberties. The press used to -  and, in the future, as history shows, if allowed it will do again - use private detectives on a daily basis to access all kinds of information. If you had the misfortune to be in the news, they'd have had you and your family's mobile and landline numbers, addresses and previous addresses in minutes. As I said in my statement to Leveson, when I did some work for a tabloid in 1998 I met a PI who offered me a sliding scale of illegal information: credit card records, telephone records, criminal records and so on. All of it protected. He reeled off reams of names of journalists, broadsheet and tabloid, who used his services. The truth is journalists were constantly infringing people's civil liberties, and that's before we got to the  'bugging-phones-and-hacking-mobiles'.

As circulation declines and the newspapers grow more desperate for readers, you can be assured their behaviour would deteriorate - if that's possible - as they sought any means necessary to find bigger and more lurid stories to attract a dwindling stock of readers. If they were willing to break the law in good times, they would be willing to go even further in bad. Journalists are judged on the stories they bring in. No one likes a storykiller. With redundancies mounting, and fewer jobs available, the pressure to bring in good stories is growing, and the temptation to cut corners and steal a march on your rivals would become irresistible. The perilous state of the newspaper industry isn't an argument against a truly independent regulatory body with 'teeth'. It's one of the best arguments for it.

Finally, the impression given by the press and some of its apologists is that this issue arose out of nowhere, or it was the creation of Hacked Off, Hugh Grant, and a nuch of vindictive celebrities with an agenda. Bollocks. It arose because of the criminal and brutish behaviour of the press over countless years and they only have themselves to blame. A little humility wouldn't go amiss.

The Charter isn't perfect. Far from it. But it at least gives the framework for a regulatory body that might eventually change the rancid media culture in this country. Ignore the bleating and relentless whining of those in the industry. This is an opportunity for the press to win back some trust. Who knows, more people might start buying newspapers then. After the damage they have done, you'd think they might be eager to sieze that chance.

Don't hold your breath, though.