Press regulation: history, hysteria and hyperbole
AN awful lot of nonsense has been written and spoken since the Guardian blew the phone-hacking scandal wide open in 2011 with its report that Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been intercepted and deleted. We have had a £4m public inquiry, the closure of the country’s best-selling newspaper, and seen police banging on suburban doors at dawn to arrest journalists who could more sensibly have been asked to attend the local copshop at a given time. The public money that has been spent on the demonising of the press is mind-boggling.
We have now reached such a pitch that the three party leaders were huddled together until the early hours yesterday, arguing the toss over how the press should be reined in without using any reins. Come the dawn, a deal had been done and everyone claimed to have won. Yesterday afternoon Mr Cameron told MPs that a royal charter would be approved by the Privy Council in May to establish a new regime to replace the supine Press Complaints Commission. The new regulator would be able to impose £1m fines for bad practice, and publications that refused to join in could leave themselves open to exemplary damages if they lost a court case.
All this was outlined in a three-hour emergency debate.
An emergency debate? We aren’t going to war, we aren’t joining the euro or leaving the EU, we haven’t conceded the Falklands or Gibraltar. This is Budget week, for heaven’s sake. The economy is in the mire, people are seeing their jobs vanish and their living standards fall. Of course the biggest emergency facing the country today is to decide whether a new press regulator should have the power to request or to direct a newspaper to publish a correction or apology in a particular position on a particular page.
If the politicians have lost their sense of perspective, then so have the newspapers. And the prize for greatest misjudgment of the moment goes to The Sun for yesterday’s front page, which had absolutely nothing to do with what interests or concerns its readers and everything to do with what concerns its own interests. For the Sun, sister paper of the newspaper that prompted the whole Leveson circus, to portray itself as a Churchillian vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen is to invite mockery. And for Trevor Kavanagh to pronounce that Britain will soon have the world’s most heavily regulated newspapers is plainly bonkers.
Now I happen to think that a free press is an essential element of a free democracy. You may describe yesterday’s compromise as the ‘dab of statute’ recommended by Leveson, but it’s a dab too far. To regulate a specific group of society that has no greater rights or freedoms than any individual within that society has to be wrong. To do so in such a manner that two-thirds of MPs can in future meddle still further and tighten the rules is deplorable.
Today’s MPs may believe that they are tying the hands of tomorrow’s legislators, but they don’t know what holes the next batch may find themselves in – or what super-whizzy scissors may by then have been invented to allow them to loosen or remove their bonds.
Once this charter is established with even a whiff of parliamentary input/control/oversight, then there will never be any return to true unfettered journalism, only tougher constraints down the road.
So why, then, do I balk at the Sun? Because there was no point in publishing this hysterical hyperbole yesterday, It came too late to have any impact on the events of the afternoon and the bombastic tone would neither engage the reader nor inspire reasoned debate. It was just posturing.
So are the politicians. Outside of the Guardian, nobody cared much about journalists listening in to telephone conversations until Milly Dowler’s name was mentioned. Then all hell let loose. Down at the pub, in the queue at Tesco, at the bus-stop, everyone suddenly came over all righteous and started tut-tutting and declaiming ‘Something must be done. It shouldn’t be allowed.’
As the full sordid tale emerged, politicians and vested interests leapt on the speeding bandwagon: Cameron had foolishly appointed a former News of the World editor as his communications chief; he had jolly country suppers with Rebekah Brooks. If he was to have any credibility at all, he had to bow to Ed Miliband’s demands for a public inquiry, even though such investigations rarely solve anything.
The Dowlers were hawked all over the shop: tea at No 10, meetings with Murdoch, and finally press conferences with Brian Cathcart’s ‘victims’ group Hacked Off, whose most prominent members are Hugh Grant, J.K.Rowling and Kate and Gerry McCann. An interesting quartet.
Before 1994, few had heard of Hugh Grant. Then he was cast as a tongue-tied charmer in an engaging romcom. The film turned out to be a success, but our leading man seemed to suffer a lack of confidence when it was released – to the extent that when it came to the premiere, he cast himself as an accessory to a pair of boobs, a sliver of black fabric and a collection of safety pins. Elizabeth Hurley and Versace left no one in any doubt about their objective that night: to reserve the following morning’s front pages. It was calculated marketing, and there is no way that Grant was not a party to it. As a novice film star, he needed the press and the press obliged.
The country took Grant to its heart in the way that only sloppy Brits can – by mistaking the actor for the affable posh boy character he played – and Grant and the film companies were equally happy to capitalise on the Four Weddings persona in other films. Sadly life offscreen wasn’t quite so charming. There was the Divine Brown fiasco (which he faced with refreshing candour and aplomb), the strange on-offness of the Hurley relationship, the dalliance with Jemima Khan and the brief affair that led to the birth of his daughter. None of this was of any business of anyone’s but his. Except…
As the face of Hacked Off, Grant accepts that the public has a right to know if an MP espousing ‘family values’ is cheating on his wife or if a vicar has his hands in the collection pouch, but he says he is entitled to a private life. Of course he is, but if you make your living pretending to be an honourable Englishman and all-round good egg, it’s not unreasonable for your audience to be told that actually you may not be.
Grant’s assertions to Leveson that the Mail on Sunday hacked his phone were rejected outright by the paper and described as “pure speculation” by the inquiry’s counsel Robert Jay. Yet the actor now has the ear of the Opposition, has been in regular contact with Harriet Harman, and felt it his right and duty to telephone members of the Shadow Cabinet over the weekend to urge them to push for firm regulation of the press. This is apparently quite OK. If, on the other hand, newspaper proprietors or editors put their case to politicians of any colour that is special pleading.
J.K. Rowling has had more positive publicity than anyone could want: the woman who single-handedly persuaded a generation to return to books; a beacon for the under-privileged. Rowling’s talent and business acumen have made her a billionaire and she was recently listed as the 78th most powerful woman in the country. She, too, protested to Leveson of her suffering at the hands of the press. One day her five-year-old brought home a batch of letters from school, and one turned out to be from a journalist (there was no suggestion that said journalist had approached the child in person). Did she seriously think that some grubby hack had crept into the infants’ cloakroom, found the child’s satchel and snuck the note into it? Is it not far more likely that he or she had asked a secretary or a teacher or a dinner lady to pass on the note? In which case, should Rowling’s anger have been more reasonably directed at the school?
And then there were the McCanns, the couple who left their three children, aged three and one, untended in their Algarve holiday flat as they went out with friends to a bar. When Madeleine vanished, every news organisation was on the parents’ side; whenever they spoke, their words were reported in the hope of finding the child. Everyone held back from publishing the thought that jumped into every parent’s head: ‘What were they thinking of? I’d never leave my children alone’. But none of us would want to be in their shoes, disapproval was overtaken by compassion ‘They must be feeling so guilty, so distraught…’ The couple did - and still do – everything they could to keep Madeleine’s case in the spotlight, and who can blame them? But if newspapers report every inch of progress in a police of investigation, are they not also obliged to record the less palatable events, such as the McCanns being seen as suspects?
So these are the spokespeople for the hacking victims, the group that wants to shackle the press. Ooh, sorry, the word ‘shackle’ reminds me that I’ve forgotten someone: Max Mosley, Formula 1 boss and partaker in sado-masochistic orgies with prostitutes, who apparently doesn’t mind talking about his sex life, so long as you don’t suggest any Nazi overtones (he’s sensitive about his surname and its connotations).
Hacked Off declared itself satisfied yesterday with the deal announced in the Commons, even though the restrictions are not as tough as Grant would have liked. Well hurrah! It’s such a relief that these self-appointed guardians of people’s freedoms, these people who have so skilfully played the press to their own advantage, are happy. Never mind the real victims – of thalidomide, of hospitals’ incompetence, of systematic sexual and mental abuse – who have achieved justice as a result of the dogged efforts of a free press, people who have acknowledged the importance of newspaper campaigns and who want to make sure that others benefit in the future.
We don’t care for mob rule in this country. Courts listen to the victims of crime in considering an offender’s sentence, but they do not consult them. We don’t operate a blood money system whereby an offender can buy a lighter punishment with a donation to the victim’s family. And, in spite of the constant clamour, we have not reinstituted the death penalty. We don’t heed the baying of the crowd because we put reason before emotion. Yet on this issue, our political leaders have kow-towed to populism and listened to indignance and ignorance rather than to intelligence and insight.
Journalists are not professionals who have to produce certificates and register with authorities to practice, they are tradesmen. Those who want to work on newspapers or magazines are well advised to take a college course, but plenty are happy to set up their own websites or blogs without any formal training or experience. It’s a bit like a bricklayer who hasn’t been taught how to build a pier or do a herringbone pattern. He won’t get a job on a building site, but there’s nothing to stop him advertising his services on a card in the newsagent’s.
A journalist has no more right to go snooping into people’s affairs than our bricklayer. Both are bound by exactly the same laws of the land, including laws that forbid phone-hacking and protect people from being libelled or harassed. We don’t need new rules especially for journalists – the whole point is that their rights and responsibilities are identical to those of every other citizen.
Newspapers are struggling: readerships are ageing; sales and profits are falling, so that their journalists have to offer their efforts in half a dozen formats, 24 hours a day. Staffs are being slashed and quality is harder to maintain. At the same time our amateur bloggers and tweeters can set their own agendas and devote the time and patience required to focus on particular issues unhindered by deadlines, print costs and Mr Cameron’s royal charter. The Guardian and FT have spoken openly about abandoning print, and there are few who would bet on the traditional newspaper surviving beyond the next decade. The Mail and the FT have talked of moving their web operations to unregulated America. Others are likely to follow if they find restrictions in Britain unpalatable. None of this will help to improve the quality of our press.
News of the World reporters (and those from other papers as yet unexposed) were wrong to intercept people’s telephones, and there are plenty more examples of despicable behaviour of which we should be ashamed. But newspapers are also capable of self-restraint: they respect news blackouts to protect kidnap victims; they shy away from publishing offensive material that is general currency on the internet or abroad. And of course – as we see from the MPs’ expenses scandal, the exposé of child sex grooming, the Mail’s bravery over Stephen Lawrence – they can also do great good. People may like to imagine evil cigar-munching proprietors urging their minions on to ever more dastardly deeds to sell more papers, but in reality reporters just want to be first with a story and to serve their readers.
The proliferation of celeb magazines and TV schedules full of programmes such as Embarrassing Bodies, Through the Keyhole and You’ve Been Framed suggest that privacy and intrusion doesn’t worry the average Brit too much – the Fool Britannia television programme, described as a hidden camera show in which Dom Joly unleashes a host of pranks on unsuspecting members of the public has an audience of 2.5m. Indeed, it seems that we have become a nation of voyeurs with the ultimate ambition of becoming one of the watched rather than one of the watchers. If we can’t curb our appetite for such trash, it is no surprise that our ‘caterers’ will go to ever greater lengths to find titbits to satisfy us. We get the press and television that we want and deserve.
If we also want our newspapers – in whatever format – to expose wrong-doing, to call politicians to account, to focus on serious issues, we need to allow them to do their job with freedom and responsibility. If the price is the discomfiture of a few celebs, then so be it.
Since the moment the Dowler story was published, the cacophony of axes grinding has been drowning out common sense. Yesterday the ’something must be done’ brigade won.
And the rest of us lost.