Let’s hear it from the poor

I’ve spent much of today teaching at the excellent Zheijiang University of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China.

uni of zhejiang

During students’ questions at the end of one session a young man asked about ‘Top Gear’ and specifically why Jeremy Clarkson and co seemed to make a habit of causing offence. In the discussion that followed we reached the conclusion that TV programmes which seem to consist of rich boys being paid to have fun is (we’re being polite here) likely to alienate the audience.

That conversation came a few days after seeing the BBC Trust Chair, Rona Fairhead, address the Oxford Media Convention. She was inevitably asked a question about her well-known connection to HSBC and answered it with a skill that showed more preparation than was evident in much of the rest of her delivery. It is not, though, the quality of her performance that bothers me but the fact that the person who represents the audience at the BBC’s top table is more at home with bankers and has total earnings that reflect that, rather than having any insight into the lives of the less advantaged.

Actually, let’s get down to it – we are talking about poor people, the sort who are more at home in a Food Bank than in The Ivy.

Who is making sure their voices are heard fairly and that they get to tell their own stories, rather than media types reporting on them as if they were a different order of beings worthy of anthropological study?

I ask this because this week my colleague Professor Diane Kemp will be chairing at BCU the second public debate in the wake of the report from Sir Bob Kerslake into Birmingham City Council and the governance of our wonderful city. This debate (on Friday in the University’s Parkside Lecture Theatre) will focus on child poverty or at least the way children from deprived homes and areas are served and looked after.

What has all this to do, you ask, with a school of media?

Just this: over the years in which I have been lucky enough to be a journalist I have seen the profession become more exclusive. We have never had a great track record on being ethnically diverse in spite of many initiatives on that front. Now we are not only still too white we are also increasingly one-dimensional in class terms. 

At BCU we set great store by the diversity of our wider student body but we cannot escape the fact that in a professionally accredited course like the one Diane and I run, which prepares students for work in newsrooms, we are not hearing and seeing the voices and faces of Britain, let alone Birmingham.

We will go on doing all we can to widen opportunities but in the meantime we are not sitting idly by. We make sure our students are familiar with the first class ‘Reporting Poverty’ resources developed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We stress the need for them, in reporting from their individual news patches, to reflect every element of the community they are covering.

To their credit they rise to that challenge and that’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of them……….but what will happen when they’re out in busy newsrooms. Who will ask ‘why don’t we speak to some people at the sharp end of cuts in services, the recession, benefits bashing tales and the like’?

One of my former students whose persistence has seen her rise in the ranks of a well-known broadcaster told me once that she’d been asked to help broaden the company’s journalistic workforce. In her own words she’d been selected ‘because I’m brown and I’m common’. Sadly in our business that kind of common is all too rare.


Life without the licence

It’s amazing what can happen when you turn your back for a short time. Just back from watching lots of Spanish TV news (I love the way they credit the people involved in putting together each major report) and I return to discover the television licence fee seems to be on its last legs and local newspaper editors are suggesting that radio stations who ‘lift’ their stories should have to pay.

Let’s deal with the second issue first. Any journalist that simply takes a story from another news organisation is a bad journalist. Rather than editors thinking of ‘sharing’ their stories as a source of income they should be condemning the practice out of hand. As teachers of future broadcast journalists at Birmingham City University we require our students to develop their own newsgathering skills, finding stories that haven’t been covered elsewhere. Newsroom exercises and assessments all emphasise the need for ‘original stories’. At a very minimum they have to have a completely new angle on any story that may have appeared in print somewhere. I like to think I had the same attitude when I was a news editor. If a reporter told me the local paper had a good story my response would be, ‘Great – now find a better one.’

There are clear problems here. Local newspapers are facing falling sales and competition from local radio – especially ‘licence fee feather-bedded’ BBC stations – so finding their stories on radio output and station websites must seem particularly unfair. On the other side, local radio stations have smaller numbers of journalists out on the patch so the temptation to use a paper story with minimal reworking is a real one. I repeat, though, that a system of payment is not the way forward and that it would just be condoning poor journalism.

Given the current state of the BBC’s finances (and so we say goodbye then BBC 3) it is doubtful that they could afford to pay up in the way the president of the Newspaper Society suggested to MPs in any case. That brings us to the issue of the licence fee and whether it will survive. The idea of ‘decriminalising’ licence dodging seemed like a substantial straw in the wind indicating that the last rites are being prepared for the annual ‘tax’. It would certainly mean a drop in the Corporation’s income. Then The Sunday Times led on the existence of a BBC report setting out plans for a subscription to replace the fee. You can see the argument – everyone who has receiving equipment pays for a licence whether or not they watch the BBC and whether or not they are already paying Sky, BT or whoever for their TV services. It makes sense then for the BBC to plan for life without the guaranteed income. Meanwhile, it seems the Director General, is also looking at ways of raising income by charging for items downloaded from the BBC store. It all seems very sensible. Supporters of the BBC – and they are legion – will, of course, point to its incredible value for money and tell you they are more than content to pay the licence fee and would indeed happily pay more. They don’t realise, apparently, that their willingness to stump up is a useful argument in favour of a subscription payment.

Clearly the BBC is special and deserves to be treated accordingly. Any action that might damage it is to be deplored but the Corporation is right to be thinking about life after the licence fee. Its services can now be accessed in so many ways that there must be methods of generating new income sources. At the same time, however, politicians need to be wary of ditching the licence without ensuring that the BBC’s core services can be protected.


One man’s mate…..or privacy a la Francais

So the President of France has proved what my old mum used to say along the lines of, ‘if one woman’s not enough twenty isn’t too many’. The already historically unpopular Francois Hollande is now the centre of what our tabloid press would bill as a ‘scandal’ because of his apparent liaison with an actress while still sharing the Elysee Palace with the First Lady who, in her turn, replaced his previous partner and the mother of his children.

You might ask ‘what’s that to do with us? And it’s certainly what Francois is asking. He’s threatening court action over a breach of his privacy against ‘Closer’ the magazine that had the nerve to break the story.

Normally I wouldn’t comment on the personal lives of politicians – even the head of the world’s fifth largest economy – but there is a serious point behind this squalid little tale and it holds lessons for our journalism and attempts to control the excesses of our media. We will come to that serious bit in a moment but, of course, there’s nothing like a story about problems among our European partners to bring out our best efforts at national stereotyping. In today’s Daily Mail Quentin Letts leads the way with his description of French journalists at yesterday’s Hollande media briefing as: “a salon of oyster munchers, the powdered, poodling, truth-smothering trusties of polite Parisian opinion.” There’s a turn of phrase that deserves this week’s ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ accolade and at least a chuckle but it is a delicately wielded blade that cuts to our point.

The fact is that by any standards the performance of those French journalists fell well short of what their readers and audiences should have a right to expect. It may be his ‘private life’ but M. Hollande’s behaviour should be held up to scrutiny. Here is a man about to launch a new strategy to save France’s still ailing economy (not to mention his failing Presidency) and yet his mind is elsewhere. You do not even have to imagine what the reaction would be here if David Cameron was conducting himself in the same way, you simply need to go back as far as the banking crisis and RBS boss Fred Goodwin’s affair, coverage of which helped hasten his demise. On a lesser level it is worth knowing how much our Prime Minister spends on his hair do as it tells us something about him in relation to those of us he governs. (In the interests of balance I pay £20 and looking at DC I can say ‘You’ve been robbed mate.’)

Perhaps Sir Fred and Mr. Cameron’s barber would have preferred a more Gallic approach to privacy but, let us not forget, that it was just that approach which allowed senior French politician Dominique Strauss Kahn to continue to prey on women while the French political class – and the journalists covering their official activities – remained silent about what they knew because they felt unable to intrude into his privacy.

We are still  squabbling about whether we prefer the ‘Hacked Off’ group’s idea of independent press regulation, along the lines recommended by Lord Justice Leveson, or the newspaper publishers’ creation of the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Whichever finally holds sway it has to ensure we maintain a healthy, questioning journalism that will hold politicians and others to account even if on occasions that means treading into areas they would like to think of as their private lives.

When it comes to the issue of privacy, I say: “Vive la difference!”



So what am I doing here?

I love that scene in the film of ‘The Commitments’ when Jimmy Rabitte has the band members – all good white Dubliners – repeating the phrase ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ as he tries to instil some soul into their music.

At BCU, my colleague Diane Kemp and I have often done something similar with our postgraduate broadcast journalism students shortly before they leave us to enter the world of work. In our case the mantra is ‘I’m a freelance broadcast journalist’ as we help them make the mental switch from student to working journalist.

Now, following an interesting summer and on the point of welcoming the latest batch of Pg Dip BJs to our new state of the art media centre, I’ve been wondering just what ‘I’m a journalist’ means. It’s not that I’m having any kind of crisis of faith or conscience simply that I’ve been mulling over a number of thoughts that arose during the World Journalism Education Congress at Mechelen in Belgium last month.

First there were the firm assertions of the always interesting Jeff Jarvis (every conference should have someone like him, bold, free thinking and ready to challenge the audience’s perception of itself). “Journalism,” he said “is not a content business – it’s a service.” The success of a service, he added, is measured in different ways from the manufacture of a product. There are no masses in the world of services, only individuals. “We are in the relationship business,” he said. Significantly, too, Jarvis dismissed all the discussions around who is and who isn’t a journalist. I’ll paraphrase (he has an excellent way with an expletive) but his point was: “I’m sick of the debate about who’s a journalist, what’s a blogger. It doesn’t matter!”

Next came time spent in syndicate sessions under the title ‘Role, Perceptions and Professional Values Worldwide’ aimed at answering the question: ‘What is the new role of the journalist in our changing society?’ It did – miraculously, given the diverse make up of each of the two groups chewing over the same topic – come up with some conclusions. Key among them was that ‘the role of journalists and the function of journalism in society should be taught and researched as a central element in journalism education taking into account the cultural and societal contexts.’  No surprise, I suppose, that a bunch of (mostly) academics and researchers should call for more research……but it’s interesting that at a conference billed as ‘renewing journalism through education’ we should have gone back to basics. What has happened that has changed to any real extent what a journalist does?

The starting point for the discussions was a paper based on the work of the Media and Democracy project which interviewed 131 journalists in Germany, the UK, Italy, Sweden and the USA about their perceptions of their role. Taking on that work, the German researcher Thomas Hanitzsch in his ‘Worlds of Journalism Study’ came up with ‘four distinct professional milieus of journalists’ – populist disseminator, detached watchdog, critical change agent and opportunist facilitator.

None of those is a ‘milieu’ I’ve ever heard journalists talking about in a real newsroom or over a pint after work but I’m all for the idea of more thinking in this whole area. I’ll be asking my incoming students for their views and maybe putting some questions to past students now employed across the news industry. I have no idea what their responses will be but, with huge respect to Jeff Jarvis, as a working journalist and editor, I know content matters and I’ll be saying so in classes as I help prepare young journalists to produce it. They may see themselves as being in a service industry but it will be one that serves up interesting content, imaginatively presented and with an audience in mind.


Fog on all channels – Europe cut off

Having spent a valuable few days in Brussels with our BCU broadcast journalism students learning more about the workings of the European Parliament, I find myself left with a nagging question – in fact a series of questions. Why is the British media’s coverage of the Parliament so poor? Why do we report our relationship with our near neighbours in terms of us versus them? Why do we persist in talking about ‘Europe’ as if it were one big, bad body interfering in our lives rather than looking in more detail at the work of the Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers? And finally is there a link between all this and the general sense of apathy that descends on British voters when it comes to European election time.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t returned to dear old Blighty as some sort of Euro-evangelical who’s given his soul to the European project. Nor am I convinced that it is the job of journalism to act as some kind of international ‘civics’ teacher. It does, though, have a responsibility to keep its audience informed so they can make intelligent choices – and that means choices about their MEPs and whether or not to be in Europe just as much as it does about whether to buy cheap burgers and take the risk of eating bits of Dobbin.

Before I go on (and God knows I can go on…) just consider our reporting of the US Presidential elections alongside our coverage of Europe. None of our big broadcasters or newspapers misses a moment of the US polls from the Iowa Caucuses to the inauguration. From the primaries to the polls we learn about a cast of characters most of whom later disappear without trace and none of whom really matters a jot or tittle in terms of our everyday lives. Meanwhile just across the water our elected representatives work alongside those from 26 other countries and take decisions that can make a difference to each of us.

It’s a huge forum – far too big in fact – and it’s ludicrous that once a month it packs up its caravan and trails from Brussels to Strasbourg but it is a forum in which we have a say. Close as it is geographically it’s a million miles from the yah boo politics of Westminster and the schoolboy braying of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Indeed one of the Midlands MEPs we met suggested it was this very difference which meant the European Parliament was so poorly covered. Journalists, he said, insisted on trying to report its business through the prism of Westminster politics. One of his colleagues said the collaborative style of the Parliament made it much more like being a member of a giant county council.

That first MEP also said it was a disaster (his word) for the BBC to withdraw its only regular programme from the Parliament. In fact, while the students were in Brussels the BBC was there (in some force) broadcasting a live edition of the Daily Politics, though one of their main guests had been shipped in from Westminster for the event.

Broadcasters from other countries, meanwhile, do produce regular programmes from the Parliament and it will be interesting to discover what impact such output has on election turnout figures come next year. One thing is sure, those programmes offer deeper coverage than whether or not ‘Europe’ wants to standardise the banana.

I stress again that this isn’t special pleading for the pro-Europe lobby. When we have our promised ‘in/out’ referendum I will cast my ballot secretly along with anyone else who chooses to do so but I would like to think all of us who vote can do so on the basis of an informed view of what the real issues are.  



Regulation time come on…..

There may be cause for a slight smile on the faces of some senior BBC figures at the moment after their travails of the last couple of weeks. It’s not that they’re out of the woods as far as the whole Savile/Newsnight/DG resignation debacle is concerned – more that they’re no longer alone in the media doghouse.

The communications regulator Ofcom is looking into the BBC’s behaviour but at the same time it will be investigating the ITV This Morning programme and Philip Schofield’s ‘ambushing’ of David Cameron by waving a list of those who’d been named in the electronic world as possible paedophiles. In fact one of the contributors to the BBC’s own Any Questions programme on Radio 4 this weekend – Alex Deane who’s Head of Public Affairs for Public Relations company Weber Shandwick – said in his view it was ITV, rather than the BBC, who’d committed the cardinal sin of telling people to go and look online for the name of the ‘Top Tory’ rumoured to have been involved in abuse. It was probably sweeter still that this came from a man who is normally no cheerleader for the Corporation and who thinks it should be privatised.

Then the chink in the clouds opened still further with Lord McAlpine’s lawyers saying they would be seeking bigger libel damages from ITV than the £185,000 settlement reached with the BBC over the Newsnight November 2nd broadcast. Lord McAlpine was always at pains to point out that he was conscious that any amount he received from the BBC would have to come from licence payers. ITV on the other hand is a commercial entity and cannot expect the same consideration.

In his letter to the MP Rob Wilson, Ofcom’s Director of Standards, Tony Close, said: “I can confirm that Ofcom considers that both the Newsnight and This Morning programmes raise issues warranting investigation in relation to: 1) the application of generally accepted standards by ITV and the BBC and 2) the application of standards to prevent unfair treatment to an individual and unwarranted infringements of privacy.”

That’s certain to lead to more uncomfortable days for the BBC and some disquiet at ITV, which says it’s already taken disciplinary measures. But for Ofcom this affair could be seen in a wholly more positive light. With Lord Leveson’s recommendations for press regulation about to be published this is a timely reminder that some have suggested an Ofcom type body to oversee newspapers or even that Ofcom itself should have its role extended to take on the brief. What better way to show your credentials as a regulator with TV than to take on the two big broadcasters in the one investigation.

Of course it’s all too late to influence Lord Leveson but it won’t harm the cause of Ofcom boss Ed Richards who is seen by some as a strong candidate to be the BBC’s Director General. Either way there’s likely to be pressure for a review of how broadcasting is regulated – and that could mean more power for Ofcom, particularly in relation to what happens on the web. One of its former Chief Advisers, Martin Campbell, who now chairs the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, says in a contribution to a BBC Online story about the future of the BBC: “The Newsnight mess and the This Morning debacle are both prime examples of a worrying new broadcasting arrogance born out of a frustration that websites, blogs and posts can create waves daily without the risk of regulatory wrath. Internet “news” is regularly being reported by the traditional broadcast media with a cavalier disregard for the level of responsibility viewers and listeners are entitled to expect. It’s not just Leveson, broadcast regulation needs a good look at.”

So a word of advice for any senior broadcast executives who may be in need of a new berth – look for an opening in regulation.



It’s a ‘Strictly’ moment for BBC executives

As E. J. Thribb might have said, “So farewell then, George Entwistle. You were DG for just 54 days but made yourself a name. Enjoy the pay off, though Keith’s mum says you don’t deserve it.”

Listening to John Humphries interview the hapless Mr. Entwistle on Saturday it was obvious he would have to go. Humphries was at  his clinical best as he asked all the obvious questions and then skewered the DG with that simple point about his lack of curiosity. It echoed exactly the point made by members of the House of Commons Culture, media and Sport Committee when poor George gave evidence about the previous crisis – the one, you may recall, the veteran BBC man John Simpson said was the worst he could recall.

Two crises in 54 days would bring down just about anybody, let alone someone whose handling of questioning by the MPs and then by ‘Today’ painted a clear picture of a man out of his depth and failing to show even the basic journalistic instincts (or simple curiosity) that might have headed off each crisis.

I can’t accept that the DG has done the honourable thing – that would be leaving his post as a sign that he accepted responsibility for something that was none of his own doing. In this case he was the architect of his own fall and if he hadn’t gone he would undoubtedly be facing calls for his head.

But, at least he’s gone (we’ll come back to the pay off) which is rather different from ‘stepping aside’. This is BBC management speak for what’s happening to other senior BBC types – and seems to owe its creation to the Corporation’s fascination  with Strictly Come Dancing. Fist there was Peter Rippon (that first crisis again) who ‘stepped aside’ as editor of Newsnight. Now the BBC’s Head of News, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, have stepped aside.

The BBC has said neither of them “had  anything at all to do with  the failed Newsnight  investigation into Lord McAlpine. However, they were in the chain of command at the time that Newsnight shelved an earlier investigation into abuse claims against former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. They had removed themselves from making decisions on some areas of BBC News output while a separate inquiry, by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard, was held into that decision.”

I’ve worked with (for) Fran Unsworth, the Head of Newsgathering, who will fill Helen Boaden’s role while she’s ‘stepped out’ for a while. She’s a solid journalist and will do a good job – not least in reminding the staff that both these crises have involved just one programme, ‘Newsnight’ and much of the rest of the BBC’s journalism remains exemplary. Take a listen to the Humphries/Entwistle interview and you’ll hear just how robust and meticulous BBC news programmes can be.

Two things, though, worry me. First the Entwistle pay-off. Whatever his contract may have said, I’m with Keith’s mum. Nobody should get a year’s salary for failing to do their job properly even if they’ve managed to get past the 54 day barrier. Secondly, too much attention now is on the BBC. This scandal is really about the abuse of children whether it was by Jimmy Savile or a top Tory and whether it was on BBC premises or in a North Wales hotel. There are real victims here and they deserve to be the centre of media attention. They don’t get the option to ‘step aside’.

By George, I think he hasn’t got it!

What a shame Joyce Grenfell is no longer with us. Her lip-curling delivery of the admonition “oh George’ in her monologues managed to convey a combination of disapproval, disappointment and a sense that George was doing something distasteful at the back of the class. All very appropriate to sum up the appearance of the BBC’s Director General before the members of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.
You have to feel sorry on one level for a man who has to handle the ‘Savile affair’ and the fallout from the shelved ‘Newsnight’ investigation just a few weeks into his new job. At the same time, though, George is the architect of his own troubles. If in his previous post as Head of Vision (a tile that means he runs TV rather than having special insights to the BBC’s future) he had shown just the merest hint of curiosity about what Newsnight was doing, this story might now be playing out rather differently.
His performance in front of the committee – and the reporting and analysis of it in the press – will ensure that however long Mr. Entwhistle’s tenure as DG may be, he will be remembered as the one who mishandled a scandal. MPs were rightly amazed by his failure to press Helen Boaden (the BBC head of news) for any detail of the Newsnight investigation and his more recent failure to talk to journalists on the programme.
Instead, he made it clear he relies on BBC chains of command and is anxious not to show ‘undue interest’ in such things as an individual programme. You could see what he was driving at but this man is a journalist. Worse still he’s a product of the excellent BBC News Trainee system which has served the Corporation (and the country) so well in turning out an elite corps of reporters and producers. Did he miss the sessions on listening carefully to what you’re being told and asking the questions necessary to find out exactly what a story is about? George lamented the fact that he had been let down by a BBC ethos he had previously been able to rely on. He can console himself that he is not alone in feeling let down by the BBC.
Savile aside this affair has given us a glimpse into the thinking of senior BBC managers and journalists and, for me, highlights two key areas. First, the BBC needs like all institutions to open itself to new thinking and other ways of doing things when it comes to appointing top management. Mr. Entwhistle is, whatever time he spent working elsewhere, too much of a BBC man. When his successor is appointed (and that might yet be sooner than we would have thought) he or she needs to come from outside the institution. Secondly Peter Rippon’s explanation for dropping the Savile investigation was that it had found no evidence of institutional failure by Surrey Police or the Crown Prosecution Service. It doesn’t matter now whether or not that was the actual reason, the fact that a senior editorial figure would see that as an acceptable basis for a decision shows a journalistic mindset that places ‘issues’ above stories. There may have been no police or CPS failures and so no issue but as we now know his team had found a really strong story, so why not tell it?
I was asked by an American journalist the other day whether it was appropriate for one BBC programme, Panorama, to be investigating another. I said it was not just appropriate but showed some of the BBC’s journalistic strengths. I still believe that, but with Mr. Rippon now reportedly considering suing his employers over the Panorama report, I can understand why it’s difficult for Uncle Sam to understand Auntie’s ways.

Who’ll fix it now?

So the BBC is – in the words of long-serving correspondent John Simpson – facing its worst crisis in 50 years.
The handling of what someone soon is bound to call ‘Savilegate’ certainly isn’t the corporation’s finest hour and ensures the new Director General, George Entwhistle, is having a particularly rocky start to his time in the job. he’s survived today’s two-hour grilling by MPs but I wouldn’t wager too much on his long-term survival. He is, after all, the editor in chief of the BBC and in an honourable organisation like the corporation that’s as far as the buck gets.
I’ll bet, though, that his discomfiture is raising a smile or two on the faces of newspaper journalists who’ve had their own time in the wringer during the Leveson Inquiry and who are still waiting to hear what the noble judge has decided about future regulation of the press. At News International especially there is a sense that the BBC is a smug outfit feather-bedded by the licence fee, so few tears will be shed over its current embarrassment. 
The BBC had a relatively easy ride during Leveson – rightly as it wasn’t implicated at all in ‘phone hacking – but now its culture is under intense scrutiny, again rightly so. I remember a former Deputy Director General telling a group of news editors that the Beeb was always adept at shooting itself in the foot but that its aim was creeping higher. How appropriate those words are to the present ‘crisis’.
Greg Dyke, who stood down as DG over the  ‘sexed up dossier’ affair could hardly hide his own smile as he spoke at the weekend of how telling BBC journalists to stop something like an investigation would be met with resistance. That, at least, says something for the robustness of journalism in the corporation. So, too, does the fact that some Newsnight staff have been prepared to talk to Panorama about their misgivings over the decision to drop the programme’s investigation into Savile or into Surrey Police’s handling of allegations against him depending on whose versions of events you prefer.
It’s not just the BBC, of course, that seems to have ignored reports and rumours over the years that Savile was a sexual predator. What makes it worse for the Beeb, though, is that the Newsnight investigation was shelved and suspicions over why that happened will linger – not least because the press have got their teeth into Auntie and they’re not about to let go.
Peter Rippon is ‘stepping aside’ from his post as Newsnight  editor which is not quite the same as resigning from the post but does indicate some willingness to do the decent thing amid a real mess.  No doubt the BBC will watch the media carefully to see the reaction to that move. Given that a poll of readers of Media Guardian shows more than 60% feel Rippon should have resigned it seems he and employers will face trouble for some time yet……and there’s no chance Jim’ll Fix It.

Old hacks left in need of a lift

So we’ll have to wait a year to learn the fate of former News International executive Rebekah and Andy Coulson, the man who moved from running the News of the World to masterminding Downing Street’s communications for David Cameron. They, and five more former NotW journalists (I hesitate to use the word ‘hacks’ in this context) learned today that the provisional date for their trial on phone hacking charges is September 9th next year.

In the meantime Ms Brooks, her husband Charlie and five other men also face charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The Old Bailey hearing that set the 2013 trial date was told by prosecutors that the hacking allegations could relate to more than 600 victims.

That news came hot on the heels of the revelations just the day before that nearly 300 claims for damages have been filed in the High Court against News International for alleged hacking. The names of people who’ve lodged civil lawsuits for invasion of privacy reads a bit like the invitation list for a not quite A-rated Celebs party. There’s Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Lorna Hogan, the former girlfriend of Calum Best, a smattering of TV actors and Neil and Glenys Kinnock. From the ranks of past and present Premier League footballers we have Noel Whelan, Chris Kiwomya and Neil Ruddock.

Many of the names, though, are less well known and include relatives of the relatively famous – so we have Davina McCall’s husband – or the families of victims of crime or of accused people. What, I wonder, was to be gained by hacking the phone of the parents of Louise Woodward, the British nanny convicted when she was 19 of the manslaughter of a child in her care in the USA?

What’s clear from the proceedings in both the High Court and the Old Bailey is that we have come a long way from the idea that any illegal hacking was limited to one rogue reporter. The idea, too, that the use of this questionable newsgathering technique was somehow in the public interest is also dead in the murky water.

Of course, by the time the cases against Mr. Coulson, the Brookses and the others have been heard we will know what Lord Leveson has made of the mass of evidence he heard and read during his long-running inquiry into press standards. His report is due soon and he has already given notice to newspaper editors that it will include recommendations on everything from privacy to self-regulation.

Even before his report is published, it’s been suggested that the impact of his inquiry is being felt. No British newspaper published the pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge topless on her French holiday –a situation we might not have seen before the inquiry. But that incident throws up another question. The French have a privacy law and Wills and Kate used it to prevent further publication of the pictures in France but that hasn’t prevented them cropping up in publications elsewhere and on numerous sites on the web (I was shown them on a Nigerian blog). Whatever Lord Leveson recommends and whatever system of media regulation is then put in place will do nothing to stop the spread of information, pictures, damaging gossip, and the rest, through the web and social media. That leaves the thought that our press is not just on a final warning but left punctured on the hard shoulder of the information highway.