Stephen Glover: Entrapment is a perfectly valid tool
Media Studies: If journalists fret about the consequences of what they write we can say goodbye to revealing journalism
Monday 24 May 2010
Two Sundays in succession have produced major entrapment stories. Yesterday the News Of The World revealed that the Duchess of York had offered to sell access to her former husband Prince Andrew for a cool £500,000. Seven days earlier, The Mail On Sunday reported that Lord Triesman, the chairman of the Football Association, had accused Spain and Russia of planning to bribe referees in this summer's World Cup.
What interests me is the different responses to these entrapments. The Mail On Sunday sting was almost universally condemned by commentators and footballers. Amid much righteous indignation, Gary Lineker resigned the lucrative column he wrote for the paper.
Some suggested that The Mail On Sunday scraped the barrel by using Melissa Jacobs, with whom Lord Triesman had enjoyed a fling, to extract these views from him. Entrapment was judged seedy, intrusive and wrong.
By contrast, no one seems very aerated about the News Of The World's entrapment of "Fergie". The general view is that she, and probably her former husband, had it coming to them. Why the difference? Many people disliked the Mail On Sunday story because it jeopardised England's 2018 World Cup bid, whereas no one gives a fig for Fergie, or is much surprised, though some may feel sorry for the Queen that she should be even distantly associated with her.
Perhaps it would be more grown-up to work out what we think about entrapment as a journalistic device. In normal life nice people do not try to entrap one another.
It is sneaky and underhand. But journalists for these purposes are not particularly nice people and neither, often, are the people they entrap. You cannot easily encourage a person to say or do something out of character, though one can imagine exceptions where extreme pressure might be put on someone.
The primary test should not be that of consequence. You might feel it is highly regrettable that The Mail On Sunday has jeopardised England's bid. I might feel that the News Of The World's sting indirectly damages the monarchy, and is part of its owner, Rupert Murdoch's, republican agenda. We may both be right, but that is beside the point. If journalists fret about the consequences of what they write – as long as it is true and lawfully obtained – we can say goodbye to revealing journalism.
Significance is the test. It is significant that the (now former) chairman of the FA thinks the Spanish and Russians a bunch of crooks. If he is right, I should like to know more, and if he is wrong I should like to know how he formed his view in the first place.
It wasn't the best story in the world, but it wasn't a terrible one. The Fergie story was stronger, though in view of her known character it was hardly along the lines of "St Francis of Assisi caught stealing from the poor". Neither story makes us feel better about the world, but both were justifiable.
Is Rusbridger softening his stance on paywalls?
Last week's debate on Radio 4's Media Show between John Witherow and Alan Rusbridger was billed as the clash of two irredeemably opposed points of view. The former, editor of The Sunday Times, is in favour of "paywalls", which his newspaper and The Times will introduce soon. The latter, editor of The Guardian, has been philosophically opposed to making online newspaper readers pay, and has crossed swords with Rupert Murdoch, Mr Witherow's boss, on the issue.
Yet the evangelical favour that has characterised Mr Rusbridger's previous eulogies about free access on the internet was largely absent. In his 2010 Cudlipp Lecture delivered four months ago, he declared: "[Paying] removes you from the way people now connect with each other." In other words, online newspapers should be free because that is the nature of the web. Yet last week he admitted "the truth is no one knows" whether or not paywalls are the right answer, and conceded that if Mr Murdoch succeeds The Guardian might follow suit. "You'd have to be crazy to be fundamentalist about this."
Why the more measured tone? In a perfect world, Mr Rusbridger would like guardian.co.uk to remain free, but he realises there is little prospect of online newspapers paying for themselves through advertising. The most lauded (and free) online newspaper in the world, The Huffington Post, still loses money and employs a mere 60 journalists. Given that The Guardian is losing £30m a year, Mr Rusbridger would be silly to rule out the possibility of trying to make some money out of the internet, which is what Mr Murdoch hopes to do.
A couple of journalists worthy of elevation
The coalition Government is supposed to be creating more than 100 life peers, and I hope it will not be thought inappropriate for me to put forward the names of the distinguished columnists Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins. Sir Max, at least, is believed to be keen. However, Messrs Cameron and Clegg should know that it would be most destructive to the relationship of these two old friends were one ennobled without the other.
Throughout their long careers there has been a delightful symmetry. Sir Simon beat Sir Max to an editorial chair, though Sir Max occupied both of his for considerably longer. Both trousered knighthoods from Tony Blair, whom they had generally supported, though here Sir Max was faster off the blocks than his old pal by a couple of years. Sir Max was President of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England for five years, whereas Sir Simon has been Chairman of the National Trust for two years.
Can I make a heartfelt plea that these two gentlemen be advanced to the peerage on the same day, preferably at the same hour, lest this beautiful pas de deux be cruelly disrupted?
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