The Guardian and its Rule for Them and Another for US: Part 1
Is a newspaper reputed for its reporting engaged in hypocrisy?
The Guardian is happy to claim credit for a campaign that saw the closure of the News of the World for phone hacking, yet when it comes to a tale that puts the spotlight on them, they are strangely silent.
Yesterday morning, I once again wrote to them asking about my allegations that their staff appeared to have been colluding with bad-faith players responsible for data hacking, information theft, and harmful business espionage, to mention just a few things. I told them I was planning this time to write a story, as it was relevant in the wake of recent questions in the Press Gazette and others about how Guardian News and Media (GNM) deals with complaints. Barrister Jo Maugham QC, who is the founder and executive director of the Good Law Project, told PG that senior executives at GNM act like they are “more interested in protecting their reputations than anything else”.
That claim of where their priorities lie underlines for me why the Guardian should once again review its refusal to join the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), to ensure that it gives everyone a fair hearing.
This report is an illustration of what I mean.
Let’s remember, we are talking here about the paper that prides itself on its role in exposing phone hacking and directly led to the closure of a paper that up until that point dwarfed it in size. In my request for answers from their press office, I identified at least eight serious breaches of their own editorial code. So far, they have not replied.
If I’d been a retired vicar complaining about a typo in an obituary, that might have been okay, but actually, I am a journalist and my news reports have probably appeared at some stage in every major and many minor news publications around the world, including the Guardian and the Observer. I even had one of my staff working for them for a year as a correspondent, selling to them directly after their foreign desk told me they could not accept copy from an agency that also sold to the Daily Mail, but that’s also another story.
The point is that I understand the news business.
Yet on the one occasion, I took my professional concerns about their standards to the Guardian, I also found an organization that was more worried about protecting its own reputation than upholding the standards it demands from everybody else. Despite my position as another news professional, I was passed on to the letters editor, who refused to do anything other than suggest I submit a letter for ‘consideration’.
To be clear, I’m talking about a complaint where there was not just one but eight alleged breaches of their code of conduct, all of which they refused to investigate, despite being given proof that the reporter had, with the most generous interpretation, made a serious mistake. What do you think the Guardian would have done if they had an indication that the Daily Mail had been responsible for the following breaches?
* Anonymous sources: anonymous sources are supposed to be avoided
* Fairness: they are supposed to give people who criticize them the right to reply
* PCC: they refused to consider external arbitration of any form despite referencing the PCC in their code of conduct
* Sources: sources of information should be identified and not anonymous
* Verification: there was no proper verification done when repeating serious allegations that had just been cut and pasted from the Internet
* Declarations of interest: there was no declaration of interest in the article
* Harassment: my suspicions linked the Guardian with bad-faith players responsible for a campaign of harassment against my news agency and me
* Clandestine devices and subterfuge: when the News of the World did it, they were forced to close. My question about the Guardian’s access to stolen paperwork was met with silence
And this is a publication that doesn’t pay its bills to the freelance news community, causing teeth-grinding frustration as all of us to struggle to produce news that will make a difference. They are, however, well known for being penny-pinching, but many tend to turn a blind eye to that because the Guardian is widely respected for its tireless devotion to revelations about other media that do not meet their own claimed standards of professional conduct.
As to my complaint, I struggled for a while to know when to start, but when you write a story, there is sometimes a moment that you really need to dwell on — a pivotal moment that might only last a few seconds in real-time, but one in which you need pages to describe it as it defines everything that comes after. And my entire life changed forever during a few seconds early one morning, on 25th April 2015, when something happened that set off a chain of events that finally led to my complaint to the Guardian.
A few seconds was the time it took me to read a single sentence. When I read it on my mobile phone it was morning, the family was asleep and the blue sky indicated we were in for one of the first warm days of spring. I had not yet started work and was heading to the rear garden where we have a small patio on what was until recently a patch of waste ground left after building renovations. The waste ground was finally gone, replaced by a lawn with a small pond, and we had just replaced the faded white plastic table and chairs with a proper furniture set.
On that day, I had covered one end of the glass and wrought iron table with a selection of fresh black bread, cheese and sliced sausage along with fruit juice to enjoy a rare moment of calm. I was not planning to do too much work that day, as I was going to celebrate my 50th birthday that weekend, and I was probably too distracted to focus anyway as I had just received the good news that we were to get a €500,000 investment in a project for sustainable journalism. It was the culmination of an almost 30-year career in the business and an investment that I had every reason to expect would allow an escape from a 12-hour working day, six days a week, replacing it with something that left time for my family and me.
So as I walked towards the garden carrying a plate of toast to put alongside the steaming teapot on the table, the phone rang. The caller asked me if I’d seen the news. When it became clear I didn’t know what he was referring to, he told me an article had been written about me and my agency. Then I knew what he was talking about, and a day that had seemed sunny and warm suddenly became pale and lacking in warmth. Nothing was the same after that. This was my one-second moment that needs pages to really describe what it meant — a complete difference in the before and after with consequences for me at least that can probably never be undone.
I found the report on my smartphone, and from the headline alone I realized that a reputation built over a lifetime doesn’t just vanish in five minutes, it vanishes in the seconds it takes to press a button — and then to read a single sentence to define everything I had done in a career of nearly three decades.
“The King of Bull***t News.”
That was what Buzzfeed called me. They knew the damage that would cause. In one email when they were planning their campaign against me and my agency, they wrote: “We’re about to destroy a business that took him over a decade to build along with his entire professional credibility.”
I think that pretty much sums it up. By the end of the week, my investment had vanished, the birthday party never happened, and let’s just say the trip to England to see my dad was nothing like what I had planned.
Since then, Buzzfeed carried out what can only be described as a campaign to ensure my business closed down — what chance did I have against a business with hundreds of millions in investment? Buzzfeed had used the money to build news teams around the world and hire the finest journalists, including a Paul Foot award winner and a Pulitzer Prize winner, both of whom worked on the story about me, but wisely did not put their names on it.
But I am still here; instead of one agency, I now have five, and not only that, but I have also managed to realize my project for sustainable independent journalism without any advertising, PR, or marketing, and no investor. I also fought Buzzfeed all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to send it to trial.
Buzzfeed had done no original reporting and cut and pasted everything from the Internet, but my case failed because two key witnesses for us, our Russian correspondent and a correspondent who had covered China, were unavailable to defend their work against BuzzFeed’s baseless libel: One had died mysteriously and the other had left the company and was unreachable in China.
But by that point, it was irrelevant, because I already knew everything I needed to, and now I can share it. My complaint to the Guardian was actually just one small part of a long journey since the first Buzzfeed article that included victories and losses. One of the losses was as I say that the court refused to send my libel case to trial, and that brings me to my complaint because the Guardian played a role in that.
How big a role that was can only be decided in the court of public opinion, but the question now is whether anybody is interested. Tomorrow, the story continues, but please help to support journalism that puts the other side of the story forward by following my work here on Medium.
Become a follower, and unlike the Guardian, become a contributor towards independent journalism, and not just journalism that only listens to one side.
Michael Leidig is the founder of NewsX Media, CEN Agency, Mediatech Support. Vice chairman of NAPA. Reporting without fear or favor.