So is British journalism really bent?

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The Independent Online
The broadsheets still set high standards, but there has been a dramatic shift in what the tabloids dare to print, says Roy Greenslade

A character in Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day says: "I'm with you on the freedom of the press. It's the newspapers I can't stand." This encapsulates the central contradiction of the debate over press freedom, between theory and practice, between ought and is, between the right to know and the right to privacy.

But it is only the beginning of a maze of contradictions, threaded throughout by cant and hypocrisy. We must start by acknowledging that there is no such animal as The British Press. There are two distinct presses, as unalike as if they served different planets.

The broadsheet newspapers, in spite of blemishes, continue to demonstrate the traditional virtues of the Fourth Estate. They act as an inquiring check on the power of government and justify most of what they publish as being unequivocally in the public interest. Their circulation totals about 2.6 million a day.

It is richly ironic that the beleaguered Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, should refer to this press as suffering from "a cancer of bent and twisted journalism". For almost everyone else it is the tabloid newspapers that are diseased.

Modern tabloids exist to sell as many copies as possible, to make profits. Their editorial content, whatever spurious justification editors may advance for it, is therefore intentionally aimed at interesting the public. They regularly point to their sales - almost 12 million - as proof that they are indeed pleasing their audience.

Since Northcliffe revolutionised the concept of the press at the turn of the century by creating papers for the masses, this has always been the case. But for those of us who revere the memory of the Daily Mirror and Daily Express of the Fifties and Sixties, which presented information entertainingly, we cannot but admit that there has been a dramatic shift in what popular papers dare to publish today.

Before we complain only about declining standards in newspapers, however, we must also acknowledge the depth and speed of changes in society which have made it more uninhibited. We take for granted a candour that did not exist even 25 years ago.

Over that period we have seen the tabloid agenda gradually grow more provocative. The 1970 copies of the Sun and the News of the World, with their saucy features on sex surveys, titillating court cases and Christine Keeler kiss-and-tells seemed shocking to many people then. But they appear tame by comparison with today's salacious copy, which leaves nothing to the imagination. Then again, neither do television or films.

There is little doubt that the coarsening process has accelerated of late, with the News of the World in the vanguard. It has taken to its logical conclusion the notion that if the people want sex then they can have it. Bucket-loads of it. On every page.

But we need to see beneath the trite excuse that papers are merely giving the public what it wants. For running parallel to society's increasing lack of sexual reserve has been a lack of deference. Envy, which remains a powerful force among the have-nots, has been channelled into the pleasure of reading newspapers that denigrate the haves.

The Establishment may be a wishy-washy concept to those who wish to deny its existence, pointing to the growth of social mobility, but to the majority of people it is a genuine entity. To Us, it is still a Them. People Up There represent privilege, power and wealth.

Therefore, the tabloids' obsession with parading the sexual peccadilloes of Them is just fine as far as the public are concerned. They didn't know the names of the chief of the defence staff or the deputy governor of the Bank of England, until the affairs of Sir Peter Harding and Rupert Pennant-Rea were revealed, but they knew they were Them.

It is easier to understand in the case of royalty, which is the symbol of inherited privilege. In spite of the public's continuing belief in the institution of monarchy, it is obvious that their view of the Royal Family is ambivalent: they are overtly fascinated and covertly appalled. That is why they confidently criticise newspapers for intruding into the private lives of the Windsors while flocking to buy the very same papers.

There is less public hypocrisy over MPs. The revelations of their philanderings are not greeted with dismay by the overwhelming majority in a country which has lost all respect for politicians. This is especially true of thislong-running Tory government which, in the era of Mrs Thatcher, made a fetish of the free market and encouraged individuals - more particularly, Them - to fill their boots.

The voters, and newspapers, were conscious of this. That's why the Sunday Times investigated the money-for-questions allegations, and why journalists have looked deeply into Mr Aitken's activities. It isn't a vendetta. It's the kind of legitimate journalism for which Mr Aitken himself campaigned so passionately 20 years ago. Meanwhile, the tabloids have concentrated their investigations on his colleagues' sexual behaviour, to the evident delight of readers who have a deep-seated loathing for the Establishment and all who inhabit it.

But pandering to prejudices is, in the long term, to do a disservice to society. If people are not equipped with the information to make proper judgements about the substantive reasons for hostility towards those who pervert privilege, then they will come to believe that sexual impropriety is worse than financial impropriety. The former may make for a more entertaining read but the latter is genuine immorality, and really in the public interest.

That is why broadsheet editors, whose hostility to the tabloid press is often as rabid as that of backbench MPs, were quick to see the dangers of a privacy law emerging from the Calcutt Committee some six years ago.

Alarmed by the quip of the then Secretary of State for National Heritage, David Mellor, that the press was drinking in the last-chance saloon, they knew that a new form of self-regulation had to be introduced in order to avoid legislation which might inhibit their inquiries into Aitken-like stories.

We can now see that the creation of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and its code of conduct was the broadsheet press's attempt to bring the tabloid press to heel. It has had some success: only 8 per cent of complaints to the PCC are about intrusion into privacy.

However, the code has one large loophole. Every rule can be ignored if a story is deemed to be in the public interest. With the circulation war in full cry, tabloid editors have become adept at finding public interest defences, even to three-in-a-bed sex between unmarried consenting adults.

Indeed, it is no secret that the Government's reluctance to introduce a privacy law stems in part from the inability of even the finest legal draftsmento define the public interest. It is a hair-splitting exercise, in which hindsight plays a significant part because newspapers regard resignations as justifications for their handiwork.

One task, therefore, for everyone who can see that a privacy law would protect only the privileged - and therefore increase public odium for Them - is to provide a definition of public interest.

But that, in itself, is not the only answer. If the Establishment - as represented by the military, the Bank of England and Parliament - genuinely believes what it says, that what a person does inprivatedoes not impinge on that person'spublic role and ability to do his or her job, then it must practise what it preaches.

Forcing people to resign legitimises the tabloid agenda. The fact that people are forced out of public life by their peers is the final bit of hypocrisy in this whole distasteful affair.