A deserving press

December 1, 2011

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

An inquiry under way in the Royal Courts of Justice London, just a few hundred yards from Fleet Street, once the heart of the British newspaper industry, is becoming — in the low key way in which the British like to think they always do things (but often don’t) — a global event. It is the consequence of a crisis, as inquiries frequently are. But it will have consequences of its own: one of these may be to redefine journalism for the 21st century.

In July, the forward march of Rupert Murdoch and his son James through the British media and political establishment was halted — cruelly, abruptly, with every sign of the chaos and clamor which his tabloids usually love, indeed often create. The efforts by his British newspaper subsidiary, News International, to lock in the narrative that phone hacking at the Sunday tabloid News of the World was the preserve of one “rogue” reporter in 2006 — Clive Goodman, the Royal Correspondent, who had paid for his sins with a short sharp prison sentence — fell apart. Like Marley’s ghost from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, the awful truth came through the door, dragging a clanking chain made up of mobile phones, mementos of the hackings into the private lives of this celebrity and that politician and, most horrible, of ordinary people, caught in some media storm, for a few days the biggest story in town, and thus regarded as fair game.

No escaping that. Politicians, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, beat their breasts and said they had been too servile to the man who had four of the most important newspapers in the land and controlled the largest share of the only major satellite broadcaster, now rivaling the BBC. No more kow-towing to the Murdochs. The Press Complaints Commission, which handles complaints against the press and had foolishly said that nothing was amiss at the News of the World, was for the chop. A Commission, with full powers to examine and propose, was set up, under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Leveson, a judge with a reputation for probity and profundity.

That Commission has been under way for more than a month now, and it has made for good copy. For days, big names — actor Hugh Grant, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, comedian Steve Coogan, and the former head of Formula One racing, Max Mosley — sat in a kind of witness box and told of harassment, threats, and gross intrusions. Mosley, whom the News of the World had caught in a sado-masochistic orgy with girls dressed in Wehrmacht “uniforms” and was so shocked that it put photographs of it across six pages. Mosley refused to be shamed into silence and said his tastes, however eccentric, were nobody’s business but his own.

J.K. Rowling spoke of being trapped in her house by squads of paparazzi and reporters seeking anything for a story: one had got into her five-year-old daughter’s school and put a note in her schoolbag for her mother, begging for an interview. One day, she said, when she thought they had gone because there was no story about her anywhere, she came out to find that two more were still lying in wait. When her PR assistant asked them why they were there, they told her that they were bored in the office.

Above all others were the McCanns, Kate and Gerry, whose daughter Madeleine went missing in May 2007 from their rented flat in Portugal – and who were at the center of  a media maelstrom for two years. The News of the World editor Colin Myler had, they said, called and shouted at them for giving an interview to Hello magazine, bullying them into giving an interview to his paper. Four months later, the paper acquired a private diary written by Kate McCann and published excerpts – making her feel, she said, “violated” and “worthless”.

The story of the first weeks has been, in the main, the story of the tabloids. Even with the disappearance of the News of the World — closed in a vain attempt to put an end to the damage the Murdochs, father and son, were suffering — has a varied tabloid culture. Apart from the market-leading Sun, there are the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People, with the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail (though its editor, Paul Dacre, is quick to claim that it has as much of the up-market paper about it as the tabloid), now the most distinctive voice of the right in the country. They vary, but less than they used to: for long, the mainstay of their business model has been celebrity, sex scandals and TV in various guises, as well as extensive coverage of sports, especially football (what Americans call soccer).

They assume that if their readers want the news, they can (and do) get it from TV: their job is, largely, to entertain, to distract. Dacre, invited to give a speech to the Inquiry, mocked the elitist liberals for mocking the tabloids, saying that by doing so, they were scorning the choice of the call center worker in Sunderland, who lived for football, and had a right to know who his football heroes were sleeping with since he looked up to them and they tried to sell him things through appearing in advertisements.

Dacre is the leader of the tabloid pack; though he sometimes manifests something of a distaste himself — he said he would not have the News of the World in the house — he is the foremost in arguing that their stories of sex scandals, which interest the public, are also in the public interest. He, and Trevor Kavanagh, a Sun veteran political writer, and Kelvin MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, claim to see the Inquiry not as a purgative of toxins in the press but as a liberal-elite plot, run by their political enemies, staffed by those who despise them, advised by journalists from the Establishment who know nothing of popular taste and wish to know less.

Asked Dacre, rhetorically: “Am I alone in detecting the rank smells of hypocrisy and revenge in the political class’s current moral indignation over a British press that dared to expose their greed and corruption – the same political class, incidentally, that, until a few weeks ago, had spent years indulging in sickening genuflection to the Murdoch press?”

At stake in the courtroom – “the right to publish private lives; to judge the famous as hypocrites” for being “role models” and committing adultery, or indulging in kinky sex, or – like the McCanns – just being fodder for a ravenous appetite for detail on a mystery, and a suffering. The tabloid defense: people want it (they do); it can upset the powerful (it can); it sells newspapers (it does). And if, by some monstrous stroke of a censorious pen, the tabloids were prohibited from printing such stuff, it would migrate anyway to the web, to Facebook pages, to Twitter (it would).

This story has a way to run. Still to be exposed – the power the newspapers have exercised over politicians; and the nature of their relationship with the police – the evidence already seems to say they paid, at times lavishly, for information. At the end of it, we will have a portrait of how papers, many of them the most popular in Britain, operate: and not just the British press, but papers in many countries, where the craving for living vicariously through the private lives of strangers and the famous can make a market.

Just this month, in Oxford, a world away from the tabloids, a philosopher named Onora O’Neill gave the annual Reuters Institute lecture, and in a grave and deliberate way, pointed out that the freedom of expression which the newspapers proclaim as their own is not theirs to own. That freedom to express is an individual right: but these papers are parts of large – in the Murdochs’ case, huge – corporations with global reach, with a consuming need to persuade or bully politicians into licensing their purchases and mergers, and with the daily imperative to make a profit. Their “freedom of expression” is not just the necessary condition of democracy: the untrammeled freedom they demand can be oppressive, mendacious, brutal in its operation.

The grand dilemma which has landed on Lord Justice Leveson’s plate is how to define freedom, and how to ensure it works not just for the hard-eyed men and women who pound the facts and fantasies into a daily paper, but also how it works for those who are the object of their attention. Whatever solution he reaches, Lord Leveson said, “it must have an ethical basis to which all adhere”. Now, there’s a phrase that might be heard round the world. And if the judge can produce such an outcome, he’ll be a Daniel come to judgment, indeed.

Photos: The procession carrying Queen Elizabeth in a gilded carriage makes its way down Fleet Street towards St. Paul’s Cathedral June 4, 2002. REUTERS/Chris Helgren; A demonstrator wearing a mask depicting BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch poses for photographers outside the Houses of Parliament in London November 10, 2011. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett; Dickens’ Story on Screen and Television,” published earlier this year by McFarland & Company, Inc. RCS/HB

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Yes, yes, yes! Freedom of speech belongs to everyone, not just to newspaper proprietors. But freedom of speech also carries responsibility and many who have abused it have paid a price. In 18th century London, for example, youths convicted of blasphemy has their tongues bored through with a red-hot poker. Others who offended with obscenities were put in the stocks and had vegetables hurled at them by angry passers-by.

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