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
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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.