John Spellar, a former Labour transport minister, said something in the Commons last Thursday that set my mind racing. He told Jack Straw, leader of the House, that he had written to the editor of The Independent "to ask about travel by its journalists and its board" in view of 'the intense interest' the paper "has taken in Minister's travel".
Mr Spellar does not think he has yet been furnished with the information he seeks, and he suggested that newspapers, "since they present themselves as public institutions", should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Mr Straw replied that this was a "terrific idea", though he did not mention that New Labour intends to water down the Act as it has been rather too effective in shining a light into the workings of government.
Behind this rather light-hearted, and possibly collusive, exchange is a serious point. Should editors and journalists potentially be subject to the same scrutiny as governments and ministers, and if not, why not? Most of my colleagues would be appalled by the idea that they should.
Journalists are good at unveiling the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of politicians, but they tend to clam up if anyone gets round to looking at them. By and large they cannot bear adverse criticism. In years of writing nasty things about politicians, I have scarcely ever received a complaint, and yet the mildest and most well-meaning chiding of an editor or proprietor not infrequently calls forth instant and dreadful retaliation. They not only don't like it up 'em. They also don't expect it up 'em.
Some editors cannot accept they are public figures who may have a duty to respond to journalists' questions. Rebekah Wade, editor of the Sun, is perhaps the most egregious example. When she was editor of the News of the World, her campaign for "naming and shaming" paedophiles so stoked up the residents of Portsmouth that they took to the streets, and burnt down a house or two. But Rekekah would not explain herself, and an old retainer called Stuart Kuttner, who had nothing to do with the campaign in question, was wheeled out instead.
Since editors are public figures, the public has an interest in knowing if their private lives are at variance with the robust advice they hand out in their newspapers. If, for example, it transpired - impossible thought! - that Simon Kelner, editor of this newspaper, were less scrupulous in his recycling rituals than he urges his readers to be, putting bottles in the box meant for cardboard, or vice-versa, we would want to know about it. If, equally improbably, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, were to employ a rejected asylum seeker as his personal batman, the public interest would be served by full disclosure, as it would be if we learned that Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, rode to hounds near his Gloucestershire home, and drank at the local Conservative Association.
In a sporadic way, driven more by competitive instincts than a sense of public duty, newspapers do point out the foibles and failings of their rivals, and rotten cabbages can fly around. At a deeper level, however, most proprietors and editors feel that they are part of the one guild, and politicians of another, and that most of their energies should be spent in examining the behaviour of the political class rather than that of their own kind.
Mr Spellar evidently has a point when he suggests that double standards are at work. All the same, his and Mr Straw's implication that there is no distinction between the two groups should be qualified.
Many journalists argue that politicians are elected figures who spend public money, and should therefore be subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than journalists, who have no official representative function, and do not spend public money. No doubt this is true. But for me the more important distinction has to do with power. Journalists have a great deal of power, which is why they should be answerable in a democracy, but governments, being immeasurably richer in human and financial resources, have infinitely more, and therefore require more scrutiny. If Simon Kelner were photo-graphed putting his bottles in the wrong box, some Independent readers would be disappointed, and a few might cancel their orders. But it was more than a disappointment to learn from the Mail on Sunday not long ago that an Environment Minister called Ben Bradshaw had put recyclable waste in with his general rubbish, having urged the rest of us not to. Mr Bradshaw is at the head of a multi-million pound government campaign to persuade us to change our ways while he, on this evidence, is not prepared to do so.
Journalists and politicians, then, are not exactly in the same boat after all.
It's hard to believe that NI's bosses didn't know what was going on
The conviction and sentencing of Clive Goodman, the News of the World's royal editor, and his partner in crime, Glen Mulcaire, have left me feeling uncomfortable. No one could reasonably dispute that both men acted wrongly in intercepting telephone messages of members of the Royal Family, and others. But it is very difficult to believe that Goodman acted alone on his newspaper.
The News of the World paid Mulcaire more than £100,000 a year for his services. Can it have had no idea what he was up to? Goodman himself paid Mulcaire £12,300 in cash between 9 November 2005 and 7 August 2006 using the codename "Alexander" on his expenses claim. Records on this payments file included references to "Harry and Chelsea" and "Wills".
It is scarcely credible that executives at the News of the World, up to and including the editor, Andy Coulson, and conceivably beyond, had no inkling of what was going on. If they didn't, they should have, and are therefore guilty either of mismanagement or collusion. Mr Coulson has resigned but although he has lost his job he has not yet paid as high a price as Goodman in terms of reputation. Moreover, Mr Coulson is merely accepting "ultimate responsibility", and neither he nor any other senior executive at the News of the World has admitted guilt.
Worthies who are pouring ordure on Goodman should therefore reserve some for Rupert Murdoch's News International, the News of the World's parent company. Its attempts to draw a line under this affair - asking us to accept that Goodman was a one-off - are unconvincing. Some will find it difficult to believe, as George Pascoe-Watson, the political editor The Sun, the News of the World's sister title, claimed on Radio 4's Any Questions over the weekend, that such practices have never taken place on his newspaper. And have other titles - not just red-top tabloids - not got up to similar tricks?
I am also uneasy about the severity of the sentence. Goodman and Mulcaire pleaded guilty, which should have counted in their favour. Prison sentences of four months for Goodman, and six months for Mulcaire, seem particularly excessive given that two convicted pedophiles were last week spared imprisonment because jails are so overcrowded.
However reprehensible his activities may have been, Clive Goodman has been harshly treated by the courts, and hung out to dry by his newspaper.Reuse content