Somebody should have told Leveson that a better press is a gutter press - and always has been

Public interest has long meant of interest to the public. What has changed is the confidence of the ruling class in dealing with the press and the press in attacking them

Share

The press, declares Lord Justice Leveson, should intrude only when it is “in the public interest”. The public interest indeed has become the litmus test by which all newspaper actions are now to be judged. It’s to be used to test the behaviour of the reporters, the publication of gossip and the ultimate justification of a free press.

It is a complete misunderstanding of the role and purposes of the industry. The press isn’t there to pursue the public interest; it’s there to supply what interests the public. Uncovering wrongdoing, bringing public figures to account and holding “truth to power” is certainly admirable – although rather less often achieved than the media could or should do – but it is a by-product of the paper’s business, not its primary purpose.

Keeping our sanity

For all the high-sounding pronouncements made during the Leveson hearings, it’s the irresponsibility of the press that keeps a society free. The revelation of misdeeds doesn’t undermine dictators nearly as much as the exposure of their foibles and their personal hypocrisy. Anyone who has travelled the Arab world in the days of Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak and Eastern Europe under Soviet rule knows it was the gossip about those in power that kept people sane.

In Britain, laws were changed, the underclass protected and social reform undertaken precisely because the papers flouted the rules to uncover the human stories behind the trials and crimes of the day. The tool of oppression is conformism and the demand for “respect” by the press for the people and institutions of the state.

Leveson berates the press for becoming “reckless” in pursuit of sensationalism, ready to commit crime to get a story, as if that was something new and especially unacceptable. But that has been true of the press since its beginnings. The reading public has always been interested in the goings-on of the famous. As education expanded the readership and the ending of duties and excise tax on newspapers reduced costs, so the press became more popular and more sensational.

Servants were bribed, jurymen hunted down, the police slipped cash and names bandied about at will as crimes captured the public imagination. By the time the hysteria over Jack the Ripper died down, the press and their letter writers had managed to impugn half the aristocracy.

Charles Dickens, who today could no doubt claim the right to a private life, felt impelled to publish an account of the state of his marriage in The Times because of the stories going round, many quite accurate. William Stead, the pioneer of investigative journalism and much else besides, was condemned to prison for abducting a 13-year-old girl whom he’d “purchased” as evidence for a campaign he was running on child prostitution. He drowned in the Titanic, after helping the women to the lifeboats and giving up his life jacket to another passenger.

If the law today has been changed towards more humane sentencing of the deprived, it is at least in part because of the campaigns run by the popular press against the harsh sentencing of judges who were supported by the “quality” press.

Leveson talks of the collusion between politicians and press lords as if it were a feature of the past 30 years. If anything, it’s less than in the past. John Wilkes, the founder of modern journalism, started The North Briton to further the interests of his patron, Lord Temple, against the governments of Lord Bute and Lord North. Rupert Murdoch’s assumptions of influence are nothing compared with the political clout exercised by Lords Northcliffe, Camrose and Beaverbrook in their heyday.

Rulers and ruled

What has changed is the confidence of the ruling class in dealing with the press and the press in attacking them. The Duke of Wellington’s famous reply of “publish and be damned” to a courtesan threatening to name him in her memoirs was a reflection not just of his refusal to be blackmailed but his insouciance towards what the press wrote. Read the diaries and correspondence of the Edwardian era and you see an establishment constantly aware of the stories the press might write but with a dismissal of the “vermin” squirrelling around the salacious simply as a fact of life.

In so far as the popular press is now courted by politicians, it is because politicians lack the certainty that they can appeal to the public without the assistance of the popular press. Their predecessors sought a cosy relationship with the quality newspapers because, in a closed political world, that is where they needed support. Today’s politicians pay more heed to television and the popular press for the same reason.

At the same time, the press itself is facing a similar decline in influence and self-confidence. The faster the fall in circulation, the more intense and the more “frenzied” has become the competition to provide a public with the personal and salacious it seeks. The cry of “public interest” has only intensified a desire to prove relevance by attacking public figures and demanding their scalps.

What has also changed is the public mood. The rights of the victim, their access to “justice” and, even more, financial recompense have been propelled forward in a way that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. The press has been caught out because, in seeking to serve one public appetite, it has been slow to recognise a counterbalancing concern.

Leveson’s report is a mark of this mood but pretty irrelevant to its determination. He has done what Cameron expected of him in setting up an inquiry – to clear the Prime Minister and the police of any culpability but give voice to the victims. The state is protected but the public mood is appeased. It’s not fear of Murdoch, let alone principle, which holds Cameron back from statutory backing. It is how to define “public interest” when put into law. The more you try, the more tendentious and oppressive it becomes.

The press will behave better for the moment, not just because it fears the law but because it senses the public feeling on intrusion and hacking. But it won’t be for ever. The sympathy may be there for the victims, but nothing has changed or lessened in the public appetite for the stories. They’ll be served by one source or another. That’s what a free society means.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone