The war of words between the press and politicians goes on and on. The third “P”, the people, have been pushed off the field, summoned up only for spurious arguments and self interest. Politicians, of course, always seek to curb freedoms, and the media has to be alert and combative to protect its vital, independent role of holding power to account. So far, so noble – on paper. In real life, the press also abuses its power, uses freedom as an alibi, while fracturing and weakening British democracy and wilfully destroying lives, especially of those who have no means to fight back.
I believe journalism can and does expose evil and corruption, and through moving stories creates and strengthens human bonds. Since the Leveson Inquiry though, the stain of shame has spread across my idealism, maybe naivety. I know many of us were already concerned about the way editors and journalists didn’t think about the consequences of what was printed and some of the methods used to get stories. In the past year, witnessing the excuses, obfuscations, propaganda and bogus morality, it has become harder to feel pride in or defend the profession I love.
Most Britons do not like, trust, believe in or care for journalists and journalism. Polls by Mori, YouGov, and others have found that around 70 per cent of the public mistrust the tabloids and other newspapers and also the idea of self-regulation. Most owners and editors still fight against any constraints because they see themselves as knights on white horses, protectors of rights and the little people. Please sirs, come off those high horses. Talk to those around you. You might then learn how low journalism has fallen. OK, punters still buy papers in which they no longer have faith – that’s human nature – but they know the industry is only interested in profit and that the post-Leveson protestations are humbug.
Strange it is for a journalist to be so critical of her own trade. But that surely is an obligation. Last week the alleged rape victim of broadcaster Stuart Hall rang me. She wanted to thank me again for being a “good journalist” who cared about the anonymous letter I received from her and did what was necessary to start the investigation. That positive outcome didn’t seem to have shaken her deep suspicion of journalists in general. Ordinary people and the super-talented share the same belief now – that the press is full of scum out to get them. We are not all like that obviously, but once evidence and a strong collective impression builds up and takes hold, the exceptions hardly matter.
With this going on, absolutist free speech warriors sound ever more shrill and disingenuous. They have accepted all sorts of severe curtailments for years. The law of libel and other constraints are familiar to every journalist, taught on college courses, enforced by newspaper lawyers; indefinable notions of “good taste” usually prevent material from going to press; our secret state still holds information, in spite of the Freedom of Information Act; some people in our nation are rarely, if ever, subjected to press scrutiny – the Royal Family, for example, but also foreign billionaires who have set up camp in London, our intelligence services and so on.
The press, we’re told, must be allowed to be raucous and noncompliant. The deal is that the nation must take the bad with the good to have the best newspapers in the world. But it’s not a deal, simply narcissistic posturing and a way of avoiding accountability for the demonisation of asylum seekers, migrants, blonde gypsy children, the poor and disabled, also the pornification of females and the hounding of celebs. Yes, them too, the rich and unforgivably talented. Both Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan have put their cases brilliantly and bravely.
If any other profession or institution had so many victims and critics, this level of distrust and poor practice, newspaper bloodhounds would maul them, bring them down. See how they treat the BBC which the public believes is vastly more reliable and honourable than the press. Broadcasters are all regulated but haven’t, so far, become total propagandists for government, or have they? Do we really believe we are exempt from normal standards of behaviour? In the past months I have met so many individuals who fear and loathe us, some who were victims of press savagery. And actors, comedians and television stars who shrank from me as if I were a terrorist.
Newspapers can, if and when they choose, change lives and history. The Daily Mail did that for the Lawrence family; The Sun was exceptionally responsible in its coverage of Islam after the 7/7 bombings; The Independent’s unwavering opposition to the Iraq war rattled Blair and arguably led to less warmongering in our country; The Guardian’s current exposés of US and UK spying have shaken the western bloc, no bad thing; The Daily Telegraph gave us the MPs’ expenses scandal; The Sunday Times is investigating modern day slavery and almost all have fought government attempts to curtail civil liberties.
To keep the best alive, newspapers should accept better, legally binding, independent sanctions to stop the worst. The Royal Charter proposed by the government and backed by lobby groups, is not, as is claimed, a sinister political plot against newspapers but what the people want. And the people must count.
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