‘The Establishment is trying to choke journalism’
David Dinsmore, editor of the Sun, on the challenges to press freedom.
‘This place is staffed by human beings, not Lucifer and his disciples. Everybody who comes here wants to do a good job, they want to tell great stories that will interest and entertain readers. But we are dealing with people who are lying to us on a daily basis, and it’s important that the public understand that. And now they are being lied to with state support, and that’s a chilling thing.’
David Dinsmore, fortysomething editor of the Sun, Britain’s bestselling newspaper, hardly fits the old caricature of tabloid editor as hard-bitten/drinking demon king. It’s not just that he’s a non-drinking Glaswegian journalist and a keen cyclist. Sitting in his new glass-walled office, Dinsmore has a clear-eyed view of the fresh challenges he faces in terms of both the economics of newspapers and (the subject of our interview) the freedom of the press.
Much has changed in Rupert Murdoch’s UK publishing empire since the phone-hacking scandal exploded three years ago and led to the closure of the News of the World. The corporation has a new name (News UK), new offices in an impressive glass tower next to the Shard (a few miles but a far cry from Fortress Wapping), a paywall and new editors at each of its newspapers – the Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times, as well as a new title, the Sun on Sunday.
Dinsmore has witnessed firsthand how much the wider world of newspapers changed between doing his first shift as a reporter on the Scottish Sun back in 1990 and becoming editor of the UK title in June 2013. But he is keenly aware of the continuing importance of a free press today.
‘To start with the fundamental bit. We have grown up in an environment where the press has a massive role in shaping the conversation. Even with the birth of social media, actually I think the position of the press has got stronger, although its economic strength has decreased. I still think that every conversation on Facebook, Twitter or wherever either begins or ends with referencing the press, either for the starting point, “This has happened”, or the endpoint, a validation or otherwise of a rumour that’s gone around. So you still need to come back to the news brands – I hate that phrase – that have a degree of trust, you know what they are.
‘If that then is shackled by regulation, or indeed over-self-regulation, which I think is almost more dangerous, then where are those validation points? Where can you get the information in the first place or know whether you can believe it? I don’t want to live in a world which is controlled by the rumour and innuendo of social media, without a base point of professionalism.’
He has little time for the criticism that the press is too much of a corporate monoculture. ‘The wonderful thing about the British press is you take sides. The way that you get people interested in politics or the debate in the community is by taking a position, having a point of argument.
‘But I also think the idea that a newspaper will only give you one point of view is just nonsense. Take the referendum debate [we are talking on the day of the Scottish vote]. Down here we are firmly in the No camp as a paper, but I have allowed the Scotsman Ally Ross [a Sun columnist] to put his point of view across and he’s in the Yes camp. I mean he’s horribly misguided but … Look at the market as a whole, you’ve got the full gamut of views – for the Sun there is the Mirror, for The Times there is the Guardian, or the Telegraph. You can pick your horse accordingly.
‘If you get into a regulated, more conformist world, you don’t get that debate, people are scared to say things.’
It is a sign of how far out of fashion such fundamental ideas have fallen that somebody such as Steve Coogan (I almost apologise for using the former funny man’s name in the Sun office) could dismiss press freedom as ‘a lie’, put about by proprietors and editors as an excuse for making money.
Dinsmore is suitably unrepentant. ‘Well, we are a business. I’m not going to try to disguise that. But nobody is stopping anybody else from starting a newspaper. People talk a lot about the influence of Rupert Murdoch and so on. But he has put his money where his mouth is and built a newspaper empire, based on popularity.
‘Whether you’re selling Mars bars or Suns or Levi jeans you have to make a product that people want. And from that we get to invest in great journalism, and we have exposed incredible scandals here over the years through both the tabloids and the quality papers. But it has to be entertainment as well, to keep the product popular. The majority of people want to know the serious stuff but they want to be entertained at the same time.
‘Steve Coogan is a great case in point, a man who was made famous by in particular the tabloid press. And then once he had achieved a level of fame and wealth, decided that he didn’t want any more of that world, said I’ve had enough now, and started complaining about press freedom being a lie. If he wants to hand all the fame and wealth back, then fine.’
What does Dinsmore see as the biggest challenges facing the press today, especially in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry? ‘Certainly over the past three years the press, and our company in particular, has had a real wake-up call. We have had to scrutinise ourselves very closely and we have made huge changes as a result. The corporate climate here in terms of compliance procedures and self-regulation and so on, which we have put on ourselves, nobody has made us do this, is massive. And our staff are well aware of their responsibilities.
‘However, the external situation has become scary. The politicians and the establishment and the police in particular have used this opportunity to, as they would see it, clean their own house. Which has resulted in using investigatory powers to clamp down on legitimate journalism.’
We now know that the police used the ‘national security’ measures of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) secretly to hack into the Sun’s phone records, to hunt down the source of the paper’s ‘Plebgate’ story in 2012. ‘We ran a legitimate story. There was no criminal wrongdoing involved. Yet they used RIPA to hold what was effectively an internal inquiry, to get our telephone records for both the news desk and our political editor. And they didn’t have to go to a judge to get this, just another senior police officer.
‘We’ve also seen the Ministry of Defence issue instructions to all staff, that any contact with journalists has to be recorded. Which means that there will be no worthwhile contact with journalists. They are talking about, instead of having journalists embedded in theatres of war, having MoD press officers instead. Now that’s terrifying. Because throughout the history of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Sun led the charge in terms of our boys not being kitted out properly and the problems they were facing there, which had cost lives. And would have continued to do so had we not raised the alarm.’
Dinsmore recently spoke about the post-Leveson climate in the UK creating a degree of secrecy more familiar to a ‘banana republic’. As he told me, ‘Without confidential sources and whistleblowers there can be no story. People are scared enough to speak out already. I used to think it was all a conspiracy theory, the idea of the police listening to things, you know, we live in a free society. My view of the world has changed out of all recognition in the last three years as a result of what I’ve seen going on.
‘So the challenge comes from that use of the instruments of the establishment, using the crisis around regulation and press freedom to push their agendas and act to close down what is valuable about a free press. You have a seriously challenged business model for the press on the one hand, and on the other an establishment that’s trying to choke journalism.’
Dinsmore takes a wry view of the way that many on the supposedly liberal wing of politics and the media, having championed measures to police tabloid journalism, have been shocked to discover the police using RIPA to pursue public-interest sources. ‘Maybe the right analogy is “We only told you to blow the bloody doors off!” People tell me that the pendulum will swing back, but you’ve got to find a way of creating the momentum.
‘At the moment, after all the fuss and furores of three years ago died down, what people don’t see is the slow erosion of the press freedoms. The real challenge is to make the public see why this is important to us all, and it’s difficult to get across. Because I think journalists got themselves into a place where they are down with estate agents and bankers in the popularity stakes. I think we have to be more open about the way that we operate.’
Have these external pressures had a chilling effect on the internal workings of the press? ‘We spend an awful lot of time and consideration on what goes in the paper and I think that’s a good thing. But I would also say there’s a lot of stuff that now doesn’t go in, because of the atmosphere we are facing.
‘I suppose one clear example of the post-Leveson world is the story of the names of people who have been arrested. The police simply said, we are not going to tell you [a measure proposed by Lord Justice Leveson in his report into the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the press]. People might think, great, my name’s not going to be in the paper. But on the other hand, you could be arrested and nobody need know, you could effectively disappear.’
The combination of formal and informal constraints on dirt-digging reportage has created what I heard the Sun’s investigations chief describe as an ‘ice age’ for investigative journalism. The paper’s editor agrees: ‘That’s exactly right. The legal strictures now are such that you almost have to prove the story before you can prove the story. Anything that has the vague whiff of a fishing expedition has gone. You must have solid evidence of wrongdoing before you start investigating. And, as we all know, in the real world most stories start with a rumour and it takes a lot of work to prove it.
‘The cases where somebody just gives you the CD with the MPs’ expenses claims on it are few and far between, and I can’t see anybody battering down our doors with a story like that in the near future. Despite all of that, we have had notable successes. And we are desperate to keep pushing the envelope; where we see opportunities we will take them. And we do so at considerable risk to ourselves, we are always going to be the whipping boys.’ By ‘we’, does he mean the press, the tabloids or the Murdoch papers?
‘I mean the Sun, in particular.
‘As someone more eloquent than me said, every day we are trying to create something flammable that doesn’t catch fire, and that’s a difficult sort of tightrope to walk.’
This is first in a series of interviews with editors in the run-up to the spiked / Newseum one-day conference, ‘Press freedom in the twenty-first century‘, on 5 November in Washington, DC. To book your free tickets, and to find out more about spiked’s series of US events, click here.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
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