Journalists can be egotistical, ruthless, scurrilous,
unscrupulous, duplicitous, portentous and vain.
They have a few faults as well. These, for the time being, we shall ignore.
The virtues listed above – and any others you yourself
might care to add – form a crucial part of what makes a free press free. The public may find such traits less than
admirable, or even intolerable, but the fact is that they are essential to the business
of keeping us, the British newspaper reading audience, properly informed – and,
yes, entertained. Anyone who believes
otherwise doesn’t understand the business.
They are the virtues that make a newspaper readable. Without them, reporters and editors would be dull,
dutiful, powerless creatures, their functional value no more than that of newsroom
navvies, paid to shovel words into the presses, while exercising no more
enterprise than a grammatical adjustment here and there.
A newspaper without the underpinning of an inflated sense
of self-importance, leading inevitably to occasional outbursts of righteous
indignation, and the crossing of the line that is said to separate
respectability from disrepute, would hardly be worth reading.
What would be the point of a newspaper if its contents
were derived exclusively from government and corporate handouts, distributed by
spin doctors and public relations flaks, all with axes to grind? Worse than unreadable, such a paper would be unreliable.
Even so, there are those among us who consider allowing
free rein to journalistic egos too steep a price to pay for something as
indefinable as news quality. The
objectors often cite such ‘vulgar’ publications as the Sun, which treads the Respectability Line with the agility of an
oryx. They can also point these days to
the outrages perpetuated during the hacking and bribing scandal that brought
down the News of the World (another
horse from the Rupert Murdoch’s stable). ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ has spread his
message all over the land.
There’s no arguing that the public was right to be
disgusted; the issue at hand, though, is what retribution should be applied to
the miscreants involved in the scandal. They
should be brought to book, of course, but revenge is a terrible excuse for a wider
Fleet Street witch hunt, not even if it delivers to the stake such tawdry
proprietors as Rupert Murdoch.
The Dirty Digger’s tabloids didn’t become the
best-selling papers in Britain
by venturing too far to appeal to the better angels of our nature. Indeed, their very appeal is, or in the case
of the News of the World, was, precisely
the opposite. But bad taste is not of
public concern. Least of all is it the
business of the government, or of some public watchdog, or of the court. Who is to distinguish between bad and good
taste anyway – a government minister, a parliamentary committee, the Supreme
Court? One can see why those figures in
Westminster recently exposed in the press as cheats and liars would wish it were
so – which is precisely why it shouldn’t be so.
If the activities of hackers and bribers breached the
law, that is a different matter entirely.
But the law provides a sufficiently robust retributive process, and wronged
individuals can take comfort from the knowledge that Britain has the strictest libel laws
in the world.
But going to law, whether in criminal or civil actions,
isn’t the same as lumbering the press with some negotiated code of conduct
masquerading as law. (And if you’re not
inclined to agree with that statement, give some thought to the rafts of
contingencies that such a code would have to address.)
I don’t like the Sun,
and I liked the NoW even less, but I’m
content that such papers continue to exist, if only because I have the rare good
fortune to live in a country in which there is a broad range of alternatives.
(Britons can currently choose from ten national daily titles, a privilege that admittedly
may not survive as the so-called social media take over their functions, but
that’s another matter.)
Journalists working for a free press will always produce
work of varying and sometimes questionable quality. And, yes, journalists will sometimes ‘cross the
line’, but I’m happy with that, because I for one don’t always accept the
received public wisdom that determines where the line should be drawn.
In other words, journalists must remain free to rake
muck with gusto, to poke their noses into the dark recesses of powerful
institutions without restraint, and to always sail close to the prevailing winds
What, emphatically, is not required is some form of statutory
control over the press, least of all from a regulatory body with
interventionist powers, appointed by government with all the potential for
manipulation which that invites.
As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, the preceding passages
are an appeal, in advance of Justice Leveson’s report on press ethics – due to
be published this coming week – for balance and common sense. That means avoiding the temptation to respond
to public or political outcry by ending Britain’s 200-year tradition of
press freedom, a record that is the envy of most of the world, even the
civilized parts. (If Britain had a written
constitution, like that of the United States, an equivalent of the First
Amendment would almost certainly be formally included.)
I fear the worst from Leveson. The worst is that the recommended cure will
be far worse than the disease. The
public may have been deeply disturbed by the recent press scandals, but the
individuals alleged to have acted illegally are even now preparing to defend
themselves in court. That’s called due
legal process; it ought to be enough, now and in the future.
If Lord Justice Leveson decides that this is not
sufficient a remedy – and his findings are accepted by the powers that
appointed him – we will all have to live with the consequences.
And in my opinion they can be nothing but bad.