Invasion of the prying press

Andrew Marr, editor of the Independent, defends legitimate journalistic inquiry but draws the line at intrusion for entertainment
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The Independent Online
Intrusion is the editor's secret vice. Millions of readers of all kinds of newspapers are hypocrite-voyeurs, priggish about the press and privacy when they talk, yet finding their eyes drawn irresistibly to tales of marital intrigue, illicit humping and private grief as the paper flicks open. The people who make newspapers are not fools: we understand the hypocrisy, we forgive it, we pander to the baser instincts and ignore the sanctimony as so much meaningless waffle. Sex sells papers. Pain sells papers. Savagery sells papers.

And the great thing about journalism is that it always moves on. The victims of the doorstep raid, the snatched interview, the pursued children are left bobbing along behind, forgotten and unregarded. The readers have been entertained; that round has been fired, the next is already being loaded. And it is very unlikely that the reporter, still less the editor, will ever meet the victim again.

Except, of course, on those very rare occasions when the victim happens to be another member of the small club of journalists, and calls foul, as Polly Toynbee did on the Independent's front page so spectacularly yesterday. The Daily Mail had mounted an aggressive investigation of her (unsensational) private life because of her liberal views on divorce and other issues. Friends and neighbours were harassed. She bit back, naming the journalists responsible and giving them a good verbal belting.

Because she is a journalist too, this sort of behaviour makes it all most embarrassing, very regrettable. It is in the family. Chaps who meet at dinner parties find it hard to meet one another's eyes. Oh dear.

A few readers found Polly's account of being harassed by the Daily Mail an example of journalistic navel-gazing. But it sometimes takes someone with the power of a platform to blow the whistle on a wider problem. It wasn't that her experience was specially bad. She was being attacked by the Mail for her views rather than her behaviour. But by the standards of many victims, Toynbee's experience of being harassed was mild and brief.

Yet most people I've spoken to were startled by the story. Here, we were dismayed to be told by Mail people that their intention was merely to let her ``squirm'' for a few days as a punishment for her views. We were shocked when a Daily Mail executive told us that they had decided not to run the story because a young boy was involved ... but went on to say that if Polly wrote about what had happened, the Mail might well change its mind.

We were struck, too, by the number of people who contacted the paper yesterday to recount their tales of harassment over relatively minor sex ``stories'' or untrue rumours. Some were famous names, others not. But what was really striking was that, although the events were common knowledge, almost all of them said they didn't want to go public... they were frightened of retaliation by the Mail, or the Sun, or whoever.

One shouldn't be startled, shocked or struck by any of this. It is a common-enough occurrence and is rarely discussed only because it isn't in the interests of the press to talk about it. We all keep quiet. We are all ``in the trade'', aren't we?

No we aren't. Freedom of the press is basic to our protection from arbitrary private or state power. The right of journalists, like other citizens, to ask questions, probe and challenge is essential to that freedom. Following complex financial dealings, dodgy share arrangements, the plundering of public assets ... all these are difficult things that require probing or, to put it more bluntly, intrusion. Sniffing out double-standards and hypocrisy also means, on occasion, reporting the gap between what powerful people say and what they do in bed or behind closed doors.

But more and more intrusive ``journalism'' is prurient or vindictive. It is there, in all the tabloid papers, because readers are judged to like explicit sex stories and, vicariously, to share the hunters' thrill as another middle-aged scalp is taken, or another daughter shamed. It isn't an attack on the powerful. It is exposure for exposure's sake, directed at anyone whom anyone has ever heard of - and, increasingly, people no one has heard of.

If you are the relative of someone who won the lottery, or if your dad was famous in the Seventies, or if you were on Mastermind, you're fair game.

None of this has anything to do with freedom of the press. It is entertainment, sometimes with the willing connivance of greedy or stupid subjects, and at other times an emotional blood sport. It makes me a supporter, in principle, of privacy legislation that distinguishes sex from finance, and includes an overriding public interest defence.

There is no reason why MPs or journalists or anyone else in the public eye who are hypocrites shouldn't be exposed. But no one should be exposed simply because it is fun, or sells papers, or helps make an ideological point. And for anyone who isn't a public figure, their private lives should stay firmly private.

Almost every well-educated graduate in the country seems to want to be a journalist. People fight and lobby to get a toehold in this lucrative, fast-moving business. One of the reasons is the journalism myth as fostered by the Watergate film and many more - the myth of heroic, principled truth- seekers, confronting power and coming off best. But what happens to hundreds of journalists today? They become drawn into something very different, something utterly debased - the bullying of vulnerable people, by stronger people, for casual entertainment.

In short, they become the same problem they joined journalism to fight against. By naming names and attacking the Daily Mail yesterday, Polly Toynbee broke a journalistic taboo. She may well have sparked off a small civil war in the trade. If so, it's a welcome and a necessary war and one we will fight with very great relish.