Last week was a dramatic one in politics, but the consequences of those events will reverberate far outside the political arena. In the week that the Hutton report exposed the BBC at its worst, the corporation acted at its best, in scrupulously independent coverage of the damaging verdict and its own "meltdown" in its wake. The report has sparked a national debate, not just on public broadcasting but on news reporting in its totality, including financial news. For we, too, have many cases that are raising similar issues to the "sexing up" saga.
Consider two controversies: The first is the well-publicised spat between the Financial Times and stockbroker Collins Stewart that will end up in a court case turning on the value of single sources, bias and journalists' notes. The second is the challenge to the principle of independent comment represented by the judgment against Morgan Stanley in a Paris court for claiming in a research piece that Louis Vuitton was a "mature brand". Morgan Stanley was specifically accused of rubbishing LVMH to favour Gucci, a rival corporate client, but all commentators have had to take note.
In this, the age of the lawyer, the lawyer's maxim rules: "If it isn't written down, it didn't happen." For those of us caught in the maelstrom of the news world, this has particular pertinence. I am constantly struck by the amount of "news" never reported - the stories too secret, too shocking or just too undiscovered to make it into print. News management has become an art form, with huge resources devoted to it by the "creators" of news, whether political parties or quoted companies.
It would be interesting to know how big the PR team was at a blue chip company, let's say ICI, 50 years ago, compared to the departments of 30 or 40 at many corporates today - not counting the very professional and expensive external advisers or the "govern- ment relations" and "investor relations" departments. There may not be anything new in the desire to spin and counter-spin, but there is certainly something new in the resources we devote to it.
Against this rise in the number and sophistication of gamekeepers, the poacher journalist is left falling back on every tactic he or she can muster. Sometimes, ingenuity can cross the line. This is important background to the current debate.
It was strange last week that nobody linked Hutton to the constant rumblings from parliamentary committees about the Press Complaints Commission and self-regulation of the media in general. I was asked to train one of the witnesses before a select committee, and this clarified many issues in my own mind.
First, attacks on individuals must be separated from those on policies or institutions. I see no reason why I should have the right to read about a chief executive's sex life, and recently told a journalist chasing such a story where to go. I would like to see this practice outlawed. Outside of their private lives, attacks on individuals can of course be justified but surely must require strong evidence. Single sourcing here is unacceptable, whether you are a prime minister, a chief executive or simply someone caught in the crossfire. David Kelly's suicide has reminded us of the intensity of media pressure.
Companies or political parties are surely fairer game and, given the resources they command, we do not need to feel sorry for them. The same is even truer of policies and actions. Here criticism should be loud and clear. In contrast to the sex scandals, our libel laws offer a blanket cover giving an individual with his hand in the till a remarkable degree of protection. Think Robert Maxwell.
This national debate is long overdue. It should be as wide as possible.Reuse content