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.