By DAVID WOODING
CURBS on newspapers in the wake of the phone hacking scandal pose a massive threat to freedom of speech, Fleet Street legend Trevor Kavanagh has warned.
In an impassioned address at the opening of the Leveson inquiry on Press standards, The Sun’s top political commentator suggested the proceedings would be “hostile” to tabloid papers bought by millions of readers each day.
My former boss and colleague challenged “disparaging” remarks made by the probe’s assessor George Jones and admitted he was gloomy about the outcome. Like the immaculate copy he produces in his weekly column, his words were powerful and direct.
Mr Kavanagh (pictured) said: ”Now, in what can only be interpreted as a further cloud over freedom of speech, we have this inquiry by Lord Leveson to examine the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the Press’. It is difficult to avoid the fear that this will conclude without further limits on freedom of speech.
“It is hard to escape the impression that it is out to ‘get’ the tabloids, implicitly seen as uncultured, malpractised and unethical.
“In the debate to follow, one question worth considering why nobody with tabloid experience, representing the overwhelming majority of readers and sales, is on this panel? Could it be that at least some of those scrutinising our activities are covertly, if not overtly, hostile to everything we stand for?
“Am I paranoid in wondering if I was invited as an acceptable face of a form of journalism which is otherwise concealed in the pale pink pages of the Financial Times, or worse from our commercial perspective, borrowed from someone else to keep up with the news millions pay to read?”
Mr Kavanagh revealed how sanctimonious broadsheet editor’s often plant clues about “juicy” stories in their diary columns, knowing tabloids will seize on it – and they can then write about the story themselves.
He said: “The popular Press ventures where unpopular newspapers sometimes fear to tread. We don’t always play by THEIR rules.
“So, for instance one particularly high minded newspaper might plant a juicy clue in a diary item, knowing we would follow it up and do the job properly.
“Once we had checked it out and published the full story they were too timid to run, they condemned us while simultaneously reproducing every salacious word.”
He said tabloids must accept responsibility for the “shocking” practices which led to the closure of a great paper, the News of the World. But he claimed some politicians were using it as an excuse to neuter the Press, already facing the toughest libel laws in the world and increasing use of gagging orders by the courts.
Mr Kavanagh added: “The great sin of the popular Press is to be … popular. Our lighter, brighter papers are commercially successful. We have 20 million readers – perhaps 10 times as many as the heavies.
“To their irritation, they have been obliged to imitate our lively style in order to keep in the game.
“Our headlines are part of the vernacular. During last week’s heatwave, even the BBC Today programme was using ‘What a Scorcher’.
“We have been condemned for cheque-book journalism. Yet I understand the best story in recent years – MPs’ expenses – was bought and paid for by the Daily Telegraph, not by a tabloid.
“Would Human Rights judges have stopped it being published if MPs had got wind of it early enough? And would that have been in the public interest?”
Mr Kavanagh hailed the great campaigns run by tabloid papers, including Books for Schools to boost literacy and Help for Heroes.
He added: ”I say all this not just to blow the tabloid trumpet, but to paint a picture of a vibrant and dynamic industry which despite all its flaws is a force for good.”
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