Lord Leveson’s inquiry is back on track after the Christmas and New Year break and like the unseasonable weather the hearings have brought a burst of Sun. Former editor Kelvin MacKenzie and the current editor, Dominic Mohan, were among six people from the paper giving evidence yesterday.
Kelvin had sensibly used his Daily Mail column to apologise to the judge for earlier comments about his legal prowess in relation to the prosecution of Ken Dodd which we should, perhaps, have taken as a sign of the more mellow post-Sun MacKenzie which he presented (is he now Dagenham Lite?). Either way Kelvin was, as always, a good value turn. Even without the impression of former Prime Minister John Major there was much to savour in his evidence.
It was no surprise that he told the inquiry that as editor his view was that most things should be published and that a story feeling ‘right’ was more of a test for him than certainty about its accuracy. That was the ‘bullish’ (his word) Kelvin we remember. He was equally tough when dismissing broadcaster Anne Diamond as a discredited witness but when Lord Leveson comes to weigh all he’s heard it may well be that it’s another of the former Sun editor’s comments that will take on greater importance.
Kelvin MacKenzie said: ” ‘In the end newspapers are commercial animals. They try and make money. I would be in favour of fines and heavy fines for newspapers that don’t disclose the truth to the Press Complaints Commission,” and he went on: “They were lied to by News International and that was quite wrong and they should pay a commercial penalty for doing that. I think you will discover a commercial constraint – the threat of a financial penalty – will have a straightforward effect on newspapers.
No editor, no managing editor, no proprietor would dream of lying under those circumstances.”
If Lord Leveson’s task is to point a way forward for a new system of press regulation that will be seen as having some clout it might just be that Kelvin MacKenzie has given him a clear signpost to the future.
I think his evidence also raised an issue to which I and other educators of journalists need to give real thought. Asked directly by Lord Leveson about about checking facts before publication, he acknowledged this was important but said: “Both law and journalism are in the uncertainty business,” and added: “There is no absolute truth in any newspaper and there is no absolute truth in any court.” There is truth in what he says but we have to hold to the line that accuracy in reporting is paramount. That presents us with a challenge. Simply ensuring that future journalists know about ethical questions isn’t enough. Yes, we can point them to the countless books on the subject setting media ethics in the context of moral philosophy, but our real job is to ensure they have the knowledge – and more importantly the confidence – to operate in the real newsrooms with their commercial pressures, tyrannical deadlines and dangerous adrenalin buzz of getting the story fast and first.
We need to talk about Kelvin.