The fourth estate: not guilty: Fingers point at the messenger, but the Royal Family, Government and

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The Independent Online
When the first three estates are weak, the fourth estate looks strong by contrast. The British press, therefore, appears important in 1992, as it did in 1963, or in 1930, but its importance is more a reflection of the failure of other national institutions than of its own power.

For the Royal Family, 1992 has indeed been a horrible year, but the damaging events have been reported, and not caused, by the press, broadsheet or tabloid. The marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales had failed long before Andrew Morton's book appeared. Indeed, his book was a consequence of the failure of the marriage, and would never have been written if the Princess of Wales had not decided that she wanted her side of the story to be known.

Nobody suggests that the press had anything to do with the Princess Royal's divorce, or decision to remarry. The Duchess of York rightly says that the breakdown of her marriage was her own fault. No doubt press intrusion made the break-up more difficult and painful, but it was caused by her actions.

None of this shows the power of the press and some of it shows the press being fed information in order to advance one interest or another. Nor has the press been responsible for the weakness of the Government, the House of Commons, or the Church of England, the other national institutions that have had a bad year.

The press did not sign the Maastricht treaty, which hands over another large slice of the powers of the House of Commons to unelected European committees. Maastricht may be the wisest and most beneficial treaty signed by the British government since Versailles or Utrecht, or whatever other treaty we may have signed in the lesser cities of the continent of Europe, but it plainly derogates from the power of the House of Commons, which now, after three and a half centuries of dominance, is seeking to throw itself into the dustbin of history. Finance is the heart of political power; Maastricht takes away Britain's independent control of financial policy.

Great as is the authority of Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor of the Sun, he no more put the Maastricht treaty through his Wapping word processor than he decided to go to the dispatch box and announce that the Princess of Wales would be separated from her husband but could nevertheless become Queen, nor did he negotiate the Danish opt-outs in Edinburgh. These were the decisions of the Prime Minister; right or wrong. The press only reported them.

The main agony of 1992 has been the depth and length of the recession. This has weakened the Government because it has destroyed people's jobs, their businesses and their homes.

Some press commentators thought that it was a good idea to join the ERM at an exchange rate of DM2.95 in October 1990. Some of us thought that it was a bad and dangerous idea. But none of us decided that it should be done - the Government did that and on the Government the blame has fallen.

Because the Government tried to defend the pound at the wrong rate, for too long, by interest rates that were too high, Mr and Mrs X have lost their jobs, Mr and Mrs Y have lost their home and Mr and Mrs Z are now bankrupt. Of course, the Xs, the Ys and the Zs are angry, but they know the address to which their anger should be directed.

The Church of England is only a pale shadow of what it was when I was a child. Its congregation has dwindled, its authority has declined, the Synod is about as popular a body as the European Commission (why not Jacques Delors for Canterbury?), and the Church is split on the issue of female priests.

The press may have under-reported these events because it does not have a good understanding of church matters and is afraid of its own ignorance, but it has certainly not caused the decline to occur. There are no paparazzi on the lawn at Lambeth Palace.

The British press has less power because all British power has declined. It no longer much matters how British newspapers advise the Foreign Office, because it no longer much matters what the Foreign Office decides. It no longer much matters how the press reports the House of Commons, because the House of Commons has already voted for a long, drawn-out abdication. For most of this century there has been no reason for the press to report the House of Lords. The Church of England was the dominant Christian church of a world Empire; it is now a minority church in a respectable European nation of the middle rank.

The press exerts its influence on institutions that have lost their power and, unfortunately, these institutions include the British monarchy, which is now reduced in terms of authority to much what it was in 1485, when Henry VII came to the throne and Britain was plainly less important than France, Spain or the Holy Roman Empire.

There has been a recent change in the press reporting of sexual liaisons, though little change in the sexual conduct of public figures. The post-war Churchill government, which came to power in 1951, had a more flamboyantly indiscreet homosexual, and a more pertinacious adulterer, than anybody to be found in the Cabinets of the Eighties or Nineties. May their bones rest in peace.

The homosexual was referred to in an Observer profile of the mid-Fifties as 'a large gay man', probably the first occasion that 'gay' was used in that sense in a British newspaper; his contemporaries said he was 'as queer as a coot', a reference not to the bird but to a member of the Coote family who was accused in a court martial early in the 19th century.

Indiscretions which used to be known only in elitist gossip now make headlines in the tabloid press. The strange consequence is that the more permissive we become, the greater the threat of scandal to the politicians. But even here, social movement is taking tolerance further. David Mellor nearly survived and Paddy Ashdown did survive newspaper revelations of their affairs.

It is nearly 50 years since a Member of Parliament lost his seat because he was divorced - I can think of no case since 1945, but there may have been one or two. The first divorced prime minister was Anthony Eden in 1955 and that is now nearly 40 years ago. Homosexuals who have come out of the closet can sit on the Labour front bench, although homosexual scandal is still more dangerous to a politician than heterosexual.

There are two provisos to be made. Parliament should enact a limited privacy Bill which gives the same protection against theft to electronic as to written communications. A telephone call can be stolen as much as a letter; so can a photograph taken on private premises.

And the press should certainly let the royal children grow up in peace. It would be absurd if Prince William had to go to Charterhouse rather than Eton because Charterhouse has a closed campus and Eton has a public high street.

But the national institutions have to make their own weather. The press reacts to what they do; it can neither create a boom for a Government that is causing a slump, nor much influence the break-up of the marriages of people who no longer love each other.