Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Mail boss reinvents union code

Somewhere in a box or drawer I have a memo from Paul Dacre wishing me well in my career. He wrote it when I quit the Daily Mail as a regular casual.
This was back in 1984 when I was appointed deputy editor of The Bedfordshire Times. He was then News Editor of the Mail, one of several young, talented news room executives jostling for recognition from the then boss, Sir David English.
I thought it touching and the sign of a good employer that he took the trouble. He, of course, received his own recognition by succeeding Sir David to the top slot.
In those days he used to sit in a goldfish bowl in the otherwise open-plan office of the Daily Mail in their old Carmelite Street offices. The actual news desk was manned by minions who were supposed to filter out phone calls and the dross sent in by freelances and others for consideration for publication.
Only the best of the best was supposed to get to Paul’s attention. He then produced a closely typed news list consisting of a single sheet of A4. Around ten or twelve items a day made it on to the list, each with a couple of lines of explanation.
If the story didn’t make it on to this list it wasn’t worth bringing to Sir David’s attention. The news tasting abilities this demanded were considerable.
Also in this private office of Mr Dacre was an amazing document, in about 50 volumes. It was what was called a reverse telephone directory, with every street in Britain listed by town or area, with the telephone number and name of every householder.
It had been compiled by telephone engineers to help them trace and fix faults, and was covered by the official secrets act. In those days the telephone system was run by the General Post Office, a Government organisation.
The going rate for a bribe to secure a copy of this document, which was a tremendously helpful resource for newspapers, was apparently £100, quite a lot of money in those days.
I am reminded of this illegal access to information, every time I see Mr Dacre trying to fend off inquisitors during the Leveson inquiry. The reverse directory was the equivalent of hacking, in those days before the mobile phone.
The other thought is the extreme irony of Mr Dacre proposing a register of accredited journalists.
The Independent, of all publications, said Mr Dacre was right that the idea that journalists should be licensed by the state is repellent to the fundamentals of press freedom.
But there is merit in his suggestion for a body replacing, or sitting alongside, the existing Press Complaints Commission, which would be charged with the wider upholding of media standards.
One of its functions might be the issuing of a press card which could be suspended or withdrawn from individuals who gravely breach those standards.
This used to be the preserve of the National Union of Journalists, an organisation that The Daily Mail has always loved to vilify, or ignore.
In fact the whole newspaper industry has fought to undermine the NUJ, on the grounds that having got rid of print unions, publishers and owners dreaded the resulting soaring profits being watered down by a strong and militant journalists’ union.
Just how successful this marginalisation of the NUJ has proved is illustrated by their almost total absence from the considerations of the Leveson inquiry.
So why would Mr Dacre now appear to back a move his organisation has spent years undermining? The Independent has an interesting theory.
Dacre's model could move the sanctions to journalists, rather than their employers. In his evidence in relation to barring non-press card holders from events, Dacre commented: "It is my considered view that no publisher could survive if its reporters and writers were barred from such vital areas of journalistic interest."
This implies major organisations should sue only accredited journalists. If wrongdoing was found in a paper, it could be a matter for the journalist and the press card regulator. The writer would lose his or her press-card. The paper would dismiss them and express regret at their actions.
Whether this has been thought through as the way ahead by Mr Dacre and his advisers, it is impossible to tell.
The NUJ had a very strict, but sensible, code of conduct. If it had been allowed to play a role at the heart of the media, particularly national newspapers, it is interesting to speculate whether hacking and its associated excesses would have ever been allowed in the first place.

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