Freedom isn’t ruining lives
By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.
My Reuters colleague Jack Shafer wrote a powerful piece, giving two cheers for the tabloids. He took his text, as I did in a quite contrary piece, from the current Leveson Inquiry into British tabloid journalism, which has its roots in the uncovering of the massive interception of phone messages – “phone hacking” – at the News of the World, part of Rupert Murdoch’s British stable, now closed.
Columnists working on the same patch usually pass by on the other side of an argument with each other. But this argument is important to the profession of journalism, now in several sorts of trouble, and it is important to the public which journalism claims to inform. So I want to take public issue.
Jack quotes the legal writer Stephen Bates in the Journal of Media Law & Ethics as arguing that the “freedom of the press in Britain has been constricted” by judgments made in the past few years in favor of observing the privacy of those about whom journalists have written. Shafer and Bates agree that such judgments will deprive the British working class of its favored reading material, and will delight the elite, whose sins, of whatever kind, will be safe from the public scrutiny they should have. These assertions need examples, which Jack doesn’t give. Here are two:
In 2008, the then head of the association which controlled Formula 1 racing, Max Mosley, was outed in the News of the World as having enjoyed a sadomasochistic orgy with a number of women paid for their services. So shocked was the newspaper that they used several pages and many photographs (taken by a woman who took part in the orgy and was paid to give the News of the World the story) to display Mosley’s degradation. The story gained extra traction because the women were dressed in what the paper described as Nazi uniforms – and Mosley is the son of the former leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. Much to the disgust of tabloid editors, Mosley took the paper to court – and won, and was paid substantial damages.
More recently, in October, the wheel turned the other way. Rio Ferdinand, a Manchester United star and England’s soccer team’s captain, sued the Sunday Mirror after the paper revealed a string of affairs. The case was dismissed. The judge accepted that he was a public figure, who had recently given interviews with his heavily pregnant wife, saying his wild days were over. His hypocrisy was thus a matter of legitimate public interest.
Privacy cases are now taken under the Human Rights legislation, which balances two clauses — one in favor of freedom of expression, the other in favor of the right to privacy. Judgment must always balance the two rights. Yet it is practically inconceivable that any judge would allow a privacy suit to succeed if there were any element of public interest – defined as something which the public should know – in the published story. In the case of Max Mosley, who did not proclaim the joys of straight sex (nor, for that matter, of sadomasochism), he was no hypocrite, and thus it was found he had a right to keep his sexual activities private. Rio Ferdinand was judged a hypocrite – and since , at least for some, he is assumed to be a role model, the newspaper exposure was unpunished. Any politician would have been treated similarly.
Indeed, in the most famous exposure of recent years – that of Westminster MPs’ expenses – the Daily Telegraph, which reproduced at length the details of MPs’ use of taxpayers’ money, paid for the disks containing the information, which were stolen. There has been no hint of any action against the Telegraph for trafficking in stolen goods, normally a serious offense — nor could one succeed.
To argue that the tabloids are the preserve of the working class and thus give a sort of implicit pass from questions of ethics is a very bad argument. In fact, it was the revelation that the News of the World journalists had hacked into the cellphone of Milly Dowler, a teenager who had disappeared and was subsequently discovered murdered, which sparked an explosion of distaste which had no class preference.
The phone hacking in this case raised hopes that Milly was still alive — the hacker had deleted messages, which gave the Dowlers and others, who called the phone in desperate efforts to get an answer, false hopes that she was still alive. Even without such an egregious intervention, the case that the working class needs a diet of tawdry revelations in order to satisfy them recalls the dystopias both of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, where those conditioned to be mere automatons had a debased media diet; and of George Orwell’s “1984”, where the proles were fed a similar doctored brew of mindless rubbish. When people of any position in society realize the way in which tabloids get stories, they tend to be shocked.
Jack writes from a journalistic culture in the United States, where, as in many other countries, a sharp if informal break is made between tabloid journalism and journalism that seeks both to observe certain ethical rules and to give a view of the world which is based on evidence, investigation, and fidelity to the observable truth.
When the former News of the World reporter Paul McMullan, of whom Jack seems to approve, told the Leveson Inquiry that he was proud that the paper’s campaign against pedophiles, in which he had assisted, had resulted in an irate mob beating up a pediatrician, one got a glimpse into the depths to which the tabloids could sink, and the state of mind they engendered in their staff.
The fact that, in the UK, the tabloids like the late News of the World, The Sun, the Daily Star, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror together with the more upmarket Daily Mail and their Sunday sister papers, command a circulation of some 8 million (even with the closure of the News of the World) and a readership of at least double that, meant that their political heft was large. Politicians believed that Rupert Murdoch had great power, both to reveal their private indiscretions and to give or withhold support from their parties (they were not wrong in this, even if they may have exaggerated it.
They courted him, flattered him, did the minimum possible to annoy him. That is bad for any democracy. Many of the politicians, including the Prime Minister, have put ashes on their head, confessed they were too pliable and swore to withstand media pressure in the future. It will be good for democracy if they remain faithful to that pledge.
Tabloid journalism can be excellent – sharper, more vivid, more polemically passionate than the upmarket press. It is fighting for survival, like every other form of newspaper journalism – long may it live. On trial in London is not a journalism of that sort. It is the journalism which can ruin lives. Soon may it die.
Photos, top to bottom: A journalist reads a tabloid newspaper that claims to have details from the leaked Hutton report prior to its publication, in Downing Street in London, January 28, 2004. REUTERS/Russell Boyce RUS/ASA; A young mother reads the British Sunday tabloid newspaper News of the World July 23. The paper has come under criticism on Sunday after it printed the names and photographs of 49 convicted paedophiles following the murder of a young girl three weeks ago. The paper says it will publish the names and addresses of all known paedophiles in Britain over the coming weeks. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty