Financial Times editor Lionel Barber did not pull his punches giving the Annual Hugh Cudlipp Lecture at the London College of Communication last night, accusing most of Fleet Street of being involved in a "conspiracy of silence" over the News of the World phone hacking affair.
He also claimed the Press Complaints Commission had been "supine" over phone hacking and said the Daily Telegraph was guilty of "entrapment journalism" by sending undercover reporters to pretend to be constituents of Vince Cable.
Barber said: "The Daily Telegraph's decision to dispatch two journalists posing as constituents to interview the business secretary Vince Cable falls into a very different category than its earlier scoop on MPs expenses. The latter story, though acquired for money and deeply damaging to the standing of the Westminster class, clearly met the public interest test; the first did not. It was nothing more than entrapment journalism."
But he added: "The Telegraph's conduct, while regrettable, pales by comparison with the phone-hacking scandal which has engulfed Rupert Murdoch and News International and jeopardised his bid to take full control of BSkyB, the highly profitable satellite TV channel."
Barber, who worked for Murdoch's Sunday Times, said: "The phone-hacking scandal marks a watershed – not just for News International but also for tabloid journalism. True, the practice of phone-hacking was widespread (and not only among the tabloids). The Information Commissioner's report in 2006 showed that 305 journalists used private investigators. The number may well have been higher.
"And yet, beyond the conviction of one News of the World journalist and one private investigator, the infamous Glenn Mulcaire, no serious action was taken against them; not by the police, not by the courts, and not by the Press Complaints Commission.
"The PCC was supine at best. And while the Metropolitan Police has now re-opened its inquiry, many questions remain about why it did not pursue the original News of the World investigation with sufficient rigour."
Barber accused the newspaper industry, claiming: "Most important of all, the newspaper industry itself did not take the issue seriously or seek to establish the truth. Indeed, aside from the lead taken by the Guardian, which was followed by the FT, BBC and Independent, the rest of the newspaper industry took a pass on the News of the World phone-hacking story – almost certainly because they too were involved in 'dark arts'.
"Indeed it took a foreign newspaper – the New York Times – to break fresh ground after an investigation lasting many months. For all that period and more, a conspiracy of silence ruled Fleet Street."
Barber added: "As for News International itself, the management failed to follow the advice its newspapers would have given business or any other public figure in similar circumstances: own up rather than cover up, come clean rather than surreptitiously paying off aggrieved celebrities such as the publicist Max Clifford.
"The suspicion must remain that News Corporation assumed that it enjoyed enough power and influence in Britain to make the phone hacking controversy go away.
"Now, thanks to the overwhelming opposition of its news industry rivals to its bid for BSkyB, that influence is under threat as never before.
"News Corporation can argue, with some justification, that opposition to its BSkyB bid is motivated by base commercial interests rather than a high-minded concern over media plurality.
"Yet the concentration of broadcast and print power which would result from a fully combined BSkyB and News International's titles is troublesome, especially in the light of still unresolved questions about the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World. The bid deserves proper scrutiny by the authorities. Promises about editorial independence for Sky should be judged in the light of repeated assurances that the phone hacking was the work of a lone actor at the News of the World.
"In the final resort, failure to clean house at all news organisations would leave the mainstream media in Britain at risk of retribution in the form of statutory regulation. Many MPs are itching to retaliate for the humiliation of the expenses scandal, but statutory regulation would be a grave step in the wrong direction.
"Press freedom is woven into the fabric of our nation. We do not want to go down the same road as countries such as Argentina, Hungary and South Africa which have adopted or are about to adopt new laws curbing press freedom. Democracy, it should be remembered, is not just about holding elections.
"There is a case for rebalancing the right to privacy and the protections offered by Britain's overly onerous libel laws which are weighted in favour of the well-heeled plaintiff. But Westminster should also tread carefully with regard to privacy, lest the rich and famous, on and off the football field, become untouchable.
"More interesting, perhaps, would be to consider whether it is feasible to introduce curbs on newspaper bribery of employees or other institutions and organisations.
"It would be infinitely more preferable, of course, for the profession to conduct a rigorous collective self-examination. Journalism is not perfect, nor was it ever meant to be. But we have allowed our standards to lapse. Let us hope we have not left it too late."Answering questions, Barber suggested that every news operation should have its own code of conduct which would be published. "That would be a start in cleaning house," he said.
- Winner of the Hugh Cudlipp Student Journalist of the Year award was City University graduate Billy Kenber, now a trainee on The Times, for his investigation into the treatment of expelled asylum seekers, published by the Independent.
Pic Jon Slattery