Weasel words in the last-chance saloon

The most nauseating apology for our grotesque press is blaming readers' taste
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The Independent Online
Lord Wakeham announced at the London Press Club this week a "thorough review" of how the "problems of the paparazzi might best be tackled". The good ol' boys an' gals heartily endorsed his action. Of course they did.

How the press congratulates itself on its Press Complaints Commission with its voluntary Code of Practice. The yawning gap between the spirit of that Code and the behaviour of the tabloids is something akin to the Borgia popes and the Roman Catholic canon. Asking the press to regulate itself is like asking the Krays to draw up their own voluntary criminal justice system or Tyrannosaurus rex to write itself a vegetarian diet sheet.

Until asking for a copy recently, I had never seen this legendary Code of Practice. It was never pinned up in any newsroom I worked in, nor appended to any contract I ever signed (though some news organisations do, of late). Addressing a large gathering of journalists recently, most admitted they'd never seen it.

When I first read it, I laughed out loud. I ran about reading out segments to colleagues, who laughed too. So that you can enjoy the joke, here are some excerpts. It begins with a magnificent Article 1: "Newspapers and periodicals should take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material." Well, fancy that!

Article 4, on Privacy, reads: "Intrusions and enquiries into an individual's private life without his or her consent, including the use of long-lens photography to take pictures of people on private property without their consent, are only acceptable when it can be shown that these are, or are reasonably believed to be, in the public interest." Really? Intrusion into people's private lives is the life-blood of these organs.

Fine principles and weasel words nuzzle up to one another cosily. Journalists "should not generally" obtain information or pictures through "misrepresentation or subterfuge". Nothing must be obtained through "intimidation or harassment". Journalists "should not persist in telephoning or questioning individuals after having been asked to desist". Good grief! What about all that camping on doorsteps and yelling through letter-boxes? Almost any day of the week if you took up a tabloid (so-called mid-market or deep down-market) and tore out every story that disobeyed one of these rules, you'd be left with more holes than newspaper.

However, Lord Wakeham thinks the Code works pretty well. He thinks the British press is pretty good, bar the odd slip. We should remember who pays the piper: the press pays pounds 1m a year to finance the PCC and it gets good value for its money: a low price for keeping real privacy legislation at bay.

It is, of course, asking for trouble to write this in any newspaper. We all transgress sometimes. We all get the tone and balance wrong on occasion. The Independent (and The Guardian and The Telegraph) has relatively clean hands on privacy, royal snooping and Code infringements. But newspapers have been on a very long binge in the last-chance saloon, a non-stop happy hour where the barman has handsomely back-handed the local police.

Nearly 10 years ago the Calcutt committee drew up privacy legislation, but since then the press barons' power over our politicians has been made frighteningly manifest. The Tories really meant to legislate, but in the end they dared not. (Major marked his downfall from the day Murdoch turned against him.) Tony Blair's pact was sealed long ago on his infamous visit to Murdoch, and this week that pact held fast. Robin Cook was silenced when he seemed to call for legislation. Downing Street briefers rushed to say that self-regulation not legislation was the policy.

Can we really have reached the point where no British government can now be elected or survive without the permission of Murdoch, owner of 40 per cent of newspaper readership?

Both our leading parties behave as if they think so. Blair is unlikely to dare to test the hypothesis by curbing either the content or the ownership of the press. Downing Street said, more in hope than expectation, "The newspaper industry will be taking a good look at what lessons they might learn." Now just what lesson is a newspaper industry in the throes of a mortal combat circulation war capable of teaching itself?

Lord Wakeham is a great man for shooting at paper tigers while the real man-eaters go roaring past his averted gaze. So we shall get tougher agreements on photographing the princes, led by this paper's initiative. We shall get more rules about the paparazzi, unconvincingly touted by Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail (with the odd caveat that they can be used with his personal permission). No doubt Lord Wakeham will declare himself most satisfied while all around him his Code of Practice will continue to be broken, every day, in every way, in word or spirit.

It is mainly a good code, full of truths we should hold to be self-evident. It is a code universally acknowledged by all editors and by all political parties. If it was strictly adhered to, it would change the nature of our press out of recognition, for the better. So why can't it be made law? Why can't we frame legislation banning all intrusion into people's sex lives, while allowing investigation of financial matters?

A scurry of press apologists have sprung into print, especially in The Times, explaining why it can't be done - impossible, too complex, dangerous to the freedom of the press, etc. They point to France, where stars make millions out of suing magazines for breaches of their privacy as part of their income, while the magazines simply budget for it and carry on undeterred. (Easy - set the punishment so it really hurts and let the state take most of the fines.)

They say there are too many "public interest" grey areas. In fact there are relatively few. Private sex (but not financial) lives would be out of bounds for all, including politicians. Sex is nobody else's business unless someone has built their career on vociferous, militant anti-sex moralising. (I can think of very few that applies to, except, just possibly, Lord Rothermere.)

Next they say legislation would kill off investigative journalism. (This often from editors who commission virtually none, except into sex stories.) But a sensible privacy law would not bar investigation of suspected illegal activity, of fraud or other crimes. It would, however, require the quid pro quo of a Freedom of Information Act.

Gossip is the stuff of life. We all love it, live it, sniff it, roll in it, eat and drink it every day of our lives. But the most nauseating apology for our grotesque press has been editors blaming their readers' taste for the stuff: "It's what the readers want. They don't have to buy it if they don't like it."

Law is about protecting us from ourselves. What if we could all choose, voluntarily, which side of the road to drive on? We don't trust ourselves to regulate our greed for goods, choosing whether or not we wish to pay in shops. We make laws about these things. Once prurient gossip is out there for sale, we may find it irresistible. Yet at the same time we may still think the press stinks and that we are all demeaned and degraded by it. This is not hypocrisy, it is human. And as humans, we band together and make laws to curb those natural appetites in order to make society bearable to live in. A privacy law is no different. It simply sets limits to our greed for gossip, for our own sakes.

It takes strong political leadership to make good laws, but if our leaders have all been intimidated, threatened and scared senseless by the fog- horn front pages of the tabloids, then nothing will be done. Perhaps the boy Hague could gain his manhood spurs and show some bravery on this? After all, he has little enough to lose and much public support to gain.