Carl Bernstein said the two events were ‘cultural moments of huge consequence’ about corruption at the highest levels
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 29 September 2011 22.01 BST
Highlights from a Guardian-hosted debate entitled After Hacking: How can the press restore trust? Link to this video
One of the two journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal has said that he was “struck by the parallels” between the News of the World phone-hacking affair and the saga that brought down Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
Carl Bernstein said that the two events were “shattering cultural moments of huge consequence that are going to be with us for generations” and that both were “about corruption at the highest levels, about the corruption of the process of a free society”.
The American reporter, speaking at an event in London organised by the Guardian, specifically likened Rupert Murdoch, the NoW’s proprietor, to the ousted US president in his relation to criminal acts and alleged criminal acts conducted by their respective employees and subordinates.
Bernstein said that the important thing was not whether there was “a smoking gun” that could link Murdoch to “knowledge of phone hacking on a specific date” – just as it was not important whether Nixon knew that “the Watergate break-in would happen on a specific date”.
Instead, he added, both events were “about a sensibility that corrupted a free institution” whose consequences in the case of phone hacking helped “drive the ever descending lowest common denominator of journalism that resulted in a diminution of reporting standards” across the British press.
The Guardian event, After Hacking: How Can The Press Restore Trust?, brought together Bernstein with George Eustice, David Cameron’s former press spokesman, in a public meeting that saw the Conservative MP argue that the British press needed tighter regulation in order to prevent a repeat of the phone-hacking scandal and raise standards generally.
Eustice, complaining that journalists frequently wrote news items to the dictates of news desks, editors or owners, said that there was “not much wrong” with the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code apart from the fact that it is not really enforced.
The former spin doctor – who was replaced by Andy Coulson, the former editor of the NoW in 2007 – added that a reformed PCC should be strengthened with “proper sanctions” that are “enforced independently” of government.
Eustice also complained that in the early stage of Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative party tried to adopt a distant relationship with print media. Hinting at a change of approach that began when Coulson arrived at Conservative party headquarters, he said: “It was our analysis [that under Tony Blair] there was too much emphasis on getting the headlines right. It was our position that if we were invited to News International’s worldwide conference we’d have politely declined.
“Our position was not to respond to page one headlines … but it was very hard to sustain that and abandoned in 2007.”
However, Bernstein responded by saying that he was horrified by the idea of introducing stiffer press regulation, arguing that the press needed to be regulated in the same way as every other person’s speech is, through general law rather than a specific code.
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, said that PCC had run into trouble because its “mistake was to call itself a regulator. It is not a regulator”. Rather, he continued, the body was best described as “a mediator” handling complaints from the subjects of news articles.
He said he liked the idea of continuing with two systems of regulation for press and broadcasting but even that distinction would become “tremendously complicated”, as newspapers developed their websites and started appearing on electronic TV programme guides.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal which rocked US politics during the 1970s and ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The Washington Post reporter teamed up with fellow journalist Bob Woodward to unravel a system of political corruption which stemmed from an investigation into a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in June 1972.
Their stories exposed a link between the burglary and the campaign to re-elect Nixon, right, and suggested attempts had been made by the president to cover up the break-in which led to numerous high-profile government investigations into the scandal and the resignation of Nixon two years later.