London: One of the most powerful newspaper editors in Britain Wednesday accused the government of using a scandal over journalists hacking phones as an excuse to clamp down on the press and prevent it from probing the misdeeds of the powerful.
Showing much of the anger often evident in his right-leaning mid-market tabloid, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre said the calls for a clampdown on the industry were being led by a government that had until recently indulged in "sickening genuflections" before the Rupert Murdoch press.
"Am I alone in detecting the rank smells of hypocrisy," he told an inquiry investigating press standards after the revelations that people working for Murdoch`s News of the World had hacked the phones of thousands to generate stories.
The scandal caused a wave of public anger which ultimately brought about the closure of the News of the World and shook the British political establishment.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron was criticized for his decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief in 2007.
Dacre Wednesday said he condemned phone hacking and the practice of journalists making payments to police.
"But let`s keep it in proportion. Britain`s cities weren`t looted as a result. The banks didn`t collapse because of the News of the World. Elected politicians continued to steal from the people ... A nation didn`t go to war."
Yet the response, Dacre said, was "a judicial inquiry with greater powers than those possessed by the public inquiry into the Iraq war" with a panel of experts "who have not the faintest clue on how mass-selling newspapers operate."
Dacre and his Daily Mail have mostly kept quiet over the scandal, beyond saying that they had not generated stories from hacking themselves, and his testimony had been much anticipated.
The `Liberal` Problem
When he came to speak, his anger was directed across the board. He also singled out the left-leaning Guardian newspaper which led much of the coverage of the phone hacking, and questioned whether `liberals` should be allowed to decide what a working class man or woman reads.
"The problem is that Britain`s liberal class, the people that know best and really run this country, by and large hate all popular press," he said.
"The Hampstead liberal with his gilded lifestyle understandably enjoys the Guardian. But does he have any right to deny someone who works 10 hours a day ... and lives for football, the right to buy a paper that reveals the sexual peccadilloes of one of his team`s millionaire married players?"
Dacre, who wields huge political influence through a newspaper that often claims to lead the charge against moral decay, also suggested that the more scandalous elements of newspapers were required to draw readers in, allowing the press to then fund coverage of more serious matters such as politics.
The Guardian, funded by an independent Trust, and the Independent newspaper, owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, did not have to compete in the real world, he said, compared with the Daily Mail which is owned by the publicly listed Daily Mail and General Trust.
"News does not grow on trees," he said. "News, let me remind you, is often something that someone, the rich, the powerful, the privileged doesn`t want printed."
Turning to regulation, Dacre said the current system of self regulation led by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was successful but needed to be beefed up and suggested the industry could appoint an ombudsman with the power to impose fines.
He also said his newspapers would launch a corrections and clarifications column on page 2 to give people the opportunity to respond to stories.
He ducked however a challenge to say what his salary was, when asked by one man, who described himself as a "hacking victim," whether well-paid members of the industry had any incentive to change it. Dacre was paid nearly 3 million pounds in 2010, including a bonus, according to the company`s annual report.
Journalists, analysts, lawyers and other editors present at the hearing saw the offer of clarifications and the suggestion of an ombudsman as a welcome move designed to pre-empt the government imposing statutory regulation.
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, however told Reuters that the criticism against liberals was a "smokescreen of upmarket versus downmarket or liberal versus right" which "was not what this inquiry is about."