Leading Article: Saga that shows you can't keep a good story down

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The Independent Online
Some readers will detect a heavy dose of media self-interest in the saga of whether or not Jack Straw would be named as the man whose son supplied cannabis to a Mirror reporter before Christmas. And some readers are, of course, right. It was a cracking story, and in the news business that countermands most other considerations.

Today we, like other papers, are able to tell the full story. It is no longer the case, as it had been throughout the Christmas holiday season, that the political and journalistic establishment knew the identity of the minister but the rest of Britain didn't. A week ago, we said that the story told us nothing essential or new about the drugs debate. A week on, we haven't changed our minds. But in the meantime, we have all been caught up in days of collective twisted-knickerism about power, secrecy, hypocrisy, the press, the Attorney-General, politicians generally, and ''the right to know''. It is well worth a few minutes' disentangling.

First, is the law an ass generally to prevent newspapers publishing the identities of youngsters in court cases? No. Despite the numbers of people in their mid-teens who commit unpleasant and sometimes violent crimes that would disgrace any adult, the law is wise. Helping people to grow up, and grow away from crime, means avoiding branding them early in their lives.

Second, though, is the law excessively inflexible in this regard? Probably, it is. Like it or not, where the 17-year-old involved is the son of the Home Secretary, at a time when the Home Secretary is trying to remoralise the country's attitude to youth and drugs, that person is in a different category from any other teenager. Given that his offence was a common one, and doesn't affect the wider issues, that is his bad luck. But the story was just too interesting, too piquant, to stay for long at the level of north London dinner-party gossip. The politicians were ill-advised to try to keep the lid on it. Given that Mr Straw wanted to speak out, the Attorney General, in particular, has made a fool of himself in effectively gagging his colleague.

Yesterday, he was forced to change direction. Why? Because in the modern world, if a secret is sufficiently interesting, it simply cannot be kept from one group of people, in this case those living in England and Wales.

Scotland has her own legal system. Yesterday, facing no legal threat themselves, three Scottish papers published Mr Straw's name. The Republics of Ireland and France have papers that are quite widely read in England. They did the same. Millions of people cross to and from Britain all the time, carrying information as well as wine and suntan oil. And for anyone with a thousand pounds' worth or so of computer kit in the back bedroom, all the facts were anyway available on the Internet.

We live in a highly porous world, where news and gossip sloshes around, blithely ignoring traditional jurisdictions: whether it be satellite broadcasting, the Net or cheap flights to Paris, technology trumps censorship, time after time after time. New Labour, as people still freshly in power and therefore presumably still reasonably in touch with realities, ought to have realised that from the start.

So it follows, then, that all government should stop trying to censor anything, and that we should know everything about everyone? Some editors who should know better have been quick to say that the Straw saga demonstrates the impossibility of a privacy law ever working. That, too, shows a lack of proportion. This was a highly unusual case, with a strong political flavouring.

A privacy law which protected ordinary citizens from prying into their private sexual lives, for instance, would not be affected by the availability of foreign newspapers in London, or by the Internet. Similarly, the classification and occasional censorship of films can be defended even when ''everybody knows'' you can get the stuff in Belgium or Soho. Everybody knows, but everybody doesn't go. Most people can't be bothered. Meanwhile, protecting young minds from images of extreme and sadistic violence remains a valid thing for governments to try to do.

What, finally, about the position of Mr Straw himself? It is undeniably embarrassing. He will be laughed at by some, the next time he speaks about drugs or about young people generally. The professional sneerers will find some easy copy in the weeks ahead. It would have been much easier for him had his name been published immediately, and the week of innuendo, nudge-nudging and press pontification been avoided. But we don't believe there is a single fair-minded person who thinks worse of him for what happened. It is the kind of thing that can happen, and in many cases has happened, to families up and down the country. He dealt with it briskly and is at last talking about it openly. How can he be less qualified to do his job now he is revealed as a normal member of an ordinary family, than he was before?

The only lesson for the whole Government to remember is that you can't keep a good story down. For a few days, as we digested smears and leaks from the police, injunctions from the Attorney General and the arrest of the reporter concerned, and noted a rising bubble of mockery from all sides, they looked like a flat-footed, out of touch Tories at their worst. We only hope they noticed.