Alan Johnson lashes out at "spiteful" press, but warns against over-regulation

A former home secretary has attacked elements of the British press as “spiteful”, telling Lord Justice Leveson today that problems of nastiness were rooted in culture.

“Why are some elements of the media in this country so spiteful?” Alan Johnson MP asked the Leveson Inquiry today.

“It’s the nastiness, real nastiness you have to face. That’s a cultural thing,” he said. He pointed to the singling out of female politicians as subjects of spite, adding that he felt the sections of the press’s attempts to attack politicians’ families was “concerning”.

Johnson, who was home secretary from June 2009 to May 2010, told the Inquiry about a story the News of the World was due to run in January 2008 while he was health secretary alleging he had had an affair with a district nurse in Exeter.

“I’d never been to Exeter,” Johnson said, adding that he rang the paper’s editor to tell him the story was “absolute rubbish”.

“Run the story — it will be a good pension fund when I take you to court,” Johnson told the editor. The story — which was untrue — was never published.

On the topic of future regulation, Johnson toyed with the idea of a Parliament-backed system similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which oversees complaints made about police forces in England and Wales, but stressed the need to avoid “doing anything North Korean”.

“It is important that the press is not dragged kicking and screaming to a regime they fiercely disagree with,” Johnson said.

Also appearing this morning was Labour MP Tom Watson, one of the fiercest critics of News International, describing the publisher as the “ultimate floating voter” that behaved “with menace”.

Watson, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said there was a sense of “mystique about the News International stable” and of it having “unique access to Downing Street.”

“They were the ones that had the connections and everyone was aware of it,” Watson said. “As a minister when I discussed issues or policy, there was always a conversation about how this would play out in the Sun,” he added.

When asked by Leveson if there was a similar concern about other titles, Watson described the Daily Mail as more “constant” in its editorial position. “There were no surprises,” he said.

He named justice secretary Ken Clarke as one of the Murdoch-owned Sun’s “target MPs” and subject of “frequently harsh comment” in the redtop due to his willingness to “swim against the tide”.

Watson admitted he had “no hard evidence that there was a craven understanding” between politicians and executives at NI, but said he believed this was the “general view” among the public. He stressed that reforms were needed to restore public confidence in relations between the two.

Watson also revealed he had been contacted by a dozen MPs who had told him of their intimidation by NI titles and other British tabloids. He said they feared “ridicule and humiliation over their private lives or political mistakes”.

He also briefly described the surveillance the now-defunct News of the World subjected him to. An email trail between investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood and two executives at the tabloid suggests private investigator Derek Webb had been commissioned to survey Watson at a Labour Party conference in the hopes of proving he was having an affair; an allegation Watson said was untrue.

When asked about the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed the Murdoch empire, Watson argued that politicians had “closed their minds to the potential of a major scandal at one of the key outlets for their message.”

“Relations between them [NI and politicians] were too fibrous, so politicians couldn’t divorce their objective thinking,” he added.

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