Friday, 8 July 2011

After the World has ended

I feel sorry for many of the journalists who have lost their jobs as a result of the demise of the News of the World. Like many, I know people like David Wooding, the associate and political editor, to be good journalists who do their jobs professionally. I also still enjoy reading newspapers and recognise that there is a lot to be said for the variety that is available in both Britain and Ireland, and that such competition is in many ways healthy. But I refuse to mourn the potential demise of two unpleasant aspects of a British newspaper culture that have been more damaging to our society than MPs' claiming for duck islands on their expenses.

The first is the notion that anybody who is successful deserves to be brought down, by whatever means possible. Of course, there are those who are breaking the law or being grossly hypocritical, and they deserve to have their hypocrisy or illegality revealed. But the extent of the hacking that appears to have occurred, and the standard fare not just of the News of the World but of the tabloid press generally, works on the assumption that virtually everybody in political or public life is a wrongdoer who deserves to be exposed by whatever means possible. That is the culture that led to a toleration of hacking and apparently of contaminating computers with Trojans, using private investigators to obtain illegally private information or accepting that lying is all part of a greater good. It is not just a problem with the Murdoch press, and if we see it as confined to the News of the World, we will miss a chance to develop a much clearer sense of where the public interest differs from the potential prurient interest of the public.

The second is a degree of prurient morality that holds people in public life up to standards that few people manage in their private lives, and which are certainly not maintained by those who produce the newspapers. This morality holds that the fragility of many private lives must be held up to public ridicule regardless of the circumstances. That was as much the stock and trade of the News of the World as it is of the other tabloids (often, it is true, followed up by the broadsheets with a pretence of po-faced distaste or of inquiry into the activities of the tabloids.)

The inquiries that David Cameron has announced this morning need to do more than get to the bottom of the hacking scandal, or even of other illegal methods used to acquire private information about individuals who just happen to find themselves - even by tragedy - in the public eye. It needs, as Ed Miliband has said, to see a robust replacement to the Press Complaints Commission, one that is legally required to uphold both the freedom of the press and the responsibilities that it has too. It also needs to gain a new consensus both on those responsibilities and the parameters of the public interest. There needs too to be an understanding of where these roles lie in an increasingly electronic media.

Those who argue along these lines have, in the past, been accused of wanting to muzzle a free press. But the way that newspapers have evolved in the last two decades, where even the broadsheets make it difficult to separate fact from comment, has done more to undermine the strengths of a free press than any such regulation. The challenge for the press now is to recognise that this is far more than a challenge for News International: they need to help lead the new rapprochement or they will find that it is imposed on them; and, to do that, they need candidly to admit that, in backing the toothless charade that is the Press Complaints Commission, they have so far failed to grasp this nettle.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

No comments: