Opinion

John Lloyd

Freedom isn’t ruining lives

John Lloyd
Dec 6, 2011 18:07 UTC

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.

A deserving press

John Lloyd
Dec 1, 2011 06:00 UTC

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.

  •