A free press is a press that is free to behave badly

... but the 'Sun' is as old-fashioned as it is awful, says 'Independent on Sunday' editor Kim Fletcher

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My colleague was troubled by the Sun's holiday snap of Sophie Rhys-Jones. He'd read about the row. He'd a good idea what was in the picture. He'd even contemplated going to the pile of papers on the newsdesk and looking at it. But he thought it would be wrong to do so. I do not know whether this sensitivity made him a good journalist or just a better man, for few of us in newspapers can lay claim to the tiniest acreage of those broad, sunlit uplands that are unimpeachable morality. I am in no such state of grace, having examined pages one, two, three, four and five of the Sun within seconds of it dropping through my letterbox on Wednesday.

Even as I read David Yelland's greasy headlines - pleasurably shocked not by the pictures but by the trouble it was likely to cause for the Sun - I imagined he was himself waking up to the realisation that he had misjudged the mood: a mood editors of popular newspapers romantically pride themselves on feeling through the very pores of their skin. For once, those other cheerful arbiters of popular taste, the morning DJs and the cheeky-chappie television frontmen, were holding up the Sun not to promote its latest naughty stunt but to upbraid it for its cruelty. Not least among them was the doyen of drive-to-work radio, Chris Tarrant, the wacky guy pictured exposing poor Ms Rhys-Jones's right breast. Now the wackiness was no more. How would you like it, to have embarrassing photos from long ago shown to the world on the eve of your wedding?

So what did they think they were doing, those "senior executives" - how this industry loves the language of hierarchy - who plotted the coup with their editor? Did Mr Yelland think back to his words earlier this year, that the Sun "will not succeed post-Diana if it's perceived to be nasty and vindictive"? Did Les Hinton, the News International chief who also sits on the Press Complaints Commission, pause to consider whether these pictures could possibly be acceptable under that organisation's code of conduct? And did those cynical production staff, peering at the pictures on their screens, think how they would react if it were their fiancee being prepared for public consumption?

If they did, it was only to shove such unhelpful thoughts to the backs of their minds. What they thought they were doing was getting away with an old-fashioned scoop. On a crude calculation, the money spent buying the snaps of Ms Rhys-Jones would be redeemed many times over in extra sales and worldwide syndication. A little opprobrium they would ride as a normal hazard of a circulation war. Naturally they could never say as much, which is why the paper's apologetic editorial was couched in such repulsive tones: "We thought we were printing a saucy, but harmless, picture of Sophie Rhys-Jones. We thought it showed the fun-loving side of a woman who is bringing a breath of fresh air to the Royals."

A breath of fresh air from Miss Rhys-Jones, a gust of cant from the Sun. It just hasn't got it: hasn't got it that the world has moved on, hasn't got it that its grotesque combination of cloying sentimentality and brutish cruelty rings false at the end of 1999, hasn't got it that women have recognised its wretched misogyny. The treatment of Miss Rhys-Jones was despicable, a descent in standards that had been mapped out in the preceding two days with unpleasant incursions into the entirely private lives of Lenny Henry and Ian Botham.

Here, editors of the tabloids - or "red tops" as they prefer racily to call them - rise to berate the pomposity of broadsheet editors for criticising while picking up stories we would not initiate ourselves or, worse, reporting tabloid excesses as a means of getting a story we could not otherwise justify covering. Since I would not have dispatched an undercover reporter to trap him, why last Saturday did I follow the News of the World's story on the rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio in later editions of this paper? The simple answer is that once the News of the World had devoted five pages to it, the story was bound to run. Did readers of last week's Times pause to consider that their paper was in a position to offer patronising advice to Miss Rhys-Jones only because its sister paper had traduced her in the first place?

There is also a certain moral ambivalence about newspaper excesses. Read Private Eye, watch Have I Got News For You. Far from destroying the ostensible targets of their wrath, they have merely engendered affection for them. Much of the audience's joy in last year's Donmar Warehouse revival of The Front Page was the perfect ease with which all the devious, double- dealing, immoral characters could be transposed to a modern newsroom. Make the poor handsome sap Dallaglio a jock rendered brain-dead by American football rather than by English rugby, and he would fit very nicely into one of Hecht and MacArthur's plot-lines. The public certainly knows what to expect from newspapermen and women: that's clear from every opinion poll.

Nor are the tabloids alone in being at fault. The newspaper industry is too competitive to be an entirely moral place. Journalists seek a new sensation every day, an ambition that can drive their papers to be better and better or to be worse and worse, sometimes on consecutive days. Be suspicious of any journalist who presents himself as a wholly moral agent, for he knows that, unlike those who engage in public service, whatever the moral goodness in the work he does, its professional goodness results from his doing it a day before his rival.

Yet a free press - free occasionally to be bad - remains a vital safeguard of democracy. We must work as an essential corrective to those who wield power over us, as a fly in the ointment of oppressive government, as a guarantor of essential freedoms. That is why it is frustrating to watch others use so wantonly liberties that we defend. The mischievous pamphleteers of the 18th century faced arbitrary and oppressive imprisonment. The editors of today face only dismissal - sweetened with a sack of money - from proprietors with wealth enough to overbalance the scales of competition, enough to challenge the very governments in whose countries their papers appear.

Once proprietors were themselves at the mercy of the bailiffs and the courts. Now we have a world where Rupert Murdoch seeks from his counterparts an agreement that his own personal life will not be looked into; where David Montgomery, in his days at the Mirror, fights to gag those who question him as he expects his own reporters to question others; where Murdoch's lieutenant in London - the man who said the Sun should print the Rhys- Jones pictures - is also the chairman of the committee drawing up the code of conduct of the PCC.

So is it time for punitive legislation? No, especially as we already have privacy rules coming in with the Human Rights Act next year. It is time to argue vigorously for the freedom of the press, however seriously it has abused that freedom in the past. It is time to fight within the Press Complaints Commission so that a code is created and interpreted as the public, rather than the offending journalists, would wish it. It is time to redouble the fight with overweening proprietors and the evils that they have brought.

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