November 30, 2011 3:46 pm

Campbell slams culture of negativity in UK press

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A culture of negativity engendered by UK newspapers has poisoned the country’s quality of life, Alastair Campbell told the Leveson inquiry on Wednesday.

The former director of communications for Tony Blair said the relentless agenda-driven journalism that fused news with comment and conjecture had produced an atmosphere in which “people of quality” no longer wanted to join public life.

He identified the Daily Mail as the main perpetrator and went further to say it was Paul Dacre, its editor, who shaped the content of the newspaper.

Mr Campbell told the inquiry into press standards, set up after public outrage over the hacking of the mobile phone of Milly Dowler, the murdered Surrey schoolgirl, that he had been shown evidence of his voicemail being intercepted.

“Phone hacking is the issue that brought us to where we are now, but I don’t think it is the most important issue,” he told the inquiry. He said he had learnt in the past few days that Carole Caplin, the former close friend of Tony and Cherie Blair, had been shown evidence by police that her phone was hacked and she was prepared to give evidence to the inquiry.

Mr Campbell, himself a former political editor of the Daily Mirror, said newspapers “hour by hour and day by day” broke the Press Complaints Commission code by mixing news with comment.

“They only take the facts that fit their agenda, and then they fuse them with comment and conjecture, and then they drive their agenda through every single [thing]. It’s not just headlines, it’s pictures, it’s the whole lot.”

He said that while Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers “have within them a kind of strand of optimism and a strand of hope about the country and the future ... I think where the culture of negativity is most relentless is actually within Associated Newspapers [publisher of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday].”

He added: “I think the general point I’m making is that those who are at the top of the industry have presided over this cultural shift to what I define as a culture of negativity, and I think they’ve done it deliberately.

“I think they feel it suits their interests. I happen to think they’re wrong. I think it’s one of the reasons why they’re in trouble, why newspapers are not as popular and not bought as much as they were, because I think they’ve misunderstood this idea of what the public want.

“News is only news if it’s bad news for somebody, preferably somebody in power and authority.”

Mr Campbell said that he believed the commercial pressures on papers and the rapid advance of technology had forced papers to go downmarket.

He agreed that the Press Complaints Commission had “utterly failed” to deal with the problems he identified.

Mr Campbell said he believed that the law should be changed so that only people who had their domicile for tax status in the UK should be able to own a newspaper. He cited as current exceptions to that rule Viscount Rothermere, chairman of Daily Mail & General Trust, owner of Associated; the Barclay brothers, who own the Telegraph Media Group; and Rupert Murdoch.

“Senior owners and editors now seem to be [political] players as well as spectators. People talk about their power. It’s a pretty unaccountable form of power, but it is a form of power.”

He said he had evidence that the Daily Mirror had paid private detectives to investigate him and Lord Mandelson.

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