The `free press' is not above the law

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The media's long lenses and bugging would have left Disraeli and Gladstone in a fix and then, as now, would not have furthered democracy, writes Alan Duncan

If the spirit of Disraeli were to reawaken and visit modern Britain, the respected champion of yesteryear would find our behaviour bewildering. Had he been able to deploy some of our modern methods on the age in which he lived, history would have been rather different. He would have been able to dish the dirt on his opponent, Gladstone, for rescuing fallen women. That would have been worth at least six pages in the News of the World, if not the entire contents of a special edition. His butler (£50,000 the richer) would have been able to disclose that every now and then the symbol of a whip appears in his personal diaries. Wow! Front page stuff. There's clearly something dodgy about the Grand Old Man. Gladstone had better resign.

But Disraeli might then reflect on his own conduct. After all, it doesn't do for a party leader to speculate in shares. And in dealing with the khedive of Egypt to buy a canal, his Middle Eastern links would have looked deeply suspicious. To cap it all that Rothschild bank was involved, andit is well known to be close to the government establishment. A Middle Eastern potentate, foreign shareholdings and a secretive bank - that merits a full investigation. The public must be told. Disraeli would be a gonner too.

Whereas Gladstone and Disraeli might have had to cope with an ear pressed hard against a door, a nose at the window pane, or comments from a household servant, there is no such restraint now. The press has put itself above the law. It can behave as nobody else may. It gives itself permission to act as it chooses by telling itself that what it is doing is in the public interest. It has become judge and jury over its own conduct.

Its energy is not directed to finding the truth. Rather it is used to search for just enough circumstantial evidence to make a story printable without falling foul of libel laws, and then used to embellish a story with concocted quotes and language made up, but offered as fact.

Few can deny that we have the best media in the world, and also the worst. But bad practice soon drives out good, and that is just what is happening.

The need to sensationalise in order to sell means that straightforward reporting is a lost art. All journalists are perforce commentators as well. Even basic news has to have an angle, a twist or a spin. No one really quibbles with that. But it is plain for all to see that not just politicians, but indeed anyone who is fuel to the necessary story, can now be subjected to unreasonable treatment, with little or no redress.

When I am asked about my views on the freedom of the press, I usually reply through gritted teeth that I fully defend the right of (some sections of) the media to continue to poison public life. I would like to be able to maintain that opinion, but I detect that the mood, both in Parliament and outside, is hardening. If Stephen Dorrell were to suggest to the House of Commons that legislation should be introduced only to address long lenses and bugging I sense he would be sent away with a flea in his ear.

There is a law against defamation, but not against distortion. A paper can take the germ of a story and turn it into an epidemic by adding concocted "facts" which, though utterly untrue, are not deemed libellous. But they leave an impression.

Pressure is building for privacy legislation, and for a law which gives right of redress which in no way removes a paper's right to disclose or print the truth. If money for questions is one issue, then money for stories is certainly another. There are many who would like to see a legal requirement for the money paid by a paper or its agents for a story (as distinct from a signed article) to be published clearly along with the story itself. The menu would itself be a story: £20,000 for gardener, £30,000 for a butler, £40,000 for a royal valet, yet probably only lunch for a former cabinet minister. Is chequebook journalism part of the search for truth?

Few journalists are saints yet many have as much, if not more, power and responsibility than the average MP. They are not accountable as are elected politicians. Democracy in Britain is under strain. It needs good journalists and it needs good politicians. It is fantasy to expect our politicians to be perfect, and unreasonable to expect them to reach standards which journalists would never contemplate setting for themselves.

If the country wants a Parliament free of sexual transgressions and commercial adventure we could follow that old Middle Eastern tradition of being governed by eunuchs. But surely we'd rather have Disraeli and Aitken any day.

The writer is Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton.