This is the second part of a two part post. Part One can be found here.
The suggestion that journalists are ethically driven often provokes sniggering, because many people believe the opposite. Yet journalists spend more of their time confronting and worrying about ethical questions than people in most other walks of life.
Being accurate, balanced, fair and responsible while turning around a product that is acutely time-sensitive is demanding. You will not always agree with the decisions they make, but it is a simple fact that professional publications and professional journalists take these matters seriously though the procedures are often not formal. It is obvious, however, that no such scruples attended the preparation of the News of the World’s Mosley scoops, and it would be hard to exaggerate how far recklessness has damaged the name of journalism in recent years.
The coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, when a dozen national newspapers printed between them hundreds of grossly libellous stories on their front pages over a period of nearly a year, is probably the most shocking instance (though it was not a privacy issue). The Express papers were the worst offenders on that occasion, forced to pay a reported £550,000 in damages – and what soul-searching followed? What did the then editor of the Daily Express, Peter Hill, do to ensure it could not happen again? He famously told MPs: “I have reprimanded myself.” Journalists tend to laugh or shrug at this but they should take it seriously, because with those words Hill was mocking what they do for a living.
In both motivation and method, the Mosley case demonstrates, journalism is distinct from the industry of privacy invasion. But the privacy invaders prefer to muddy the water. When the News of the World lost that case it announced that “our press is less free today after this judgment” — appealing, by implication, to a noble British history and British tradition of press freedom. Now press freedom is an important matter and its history is certainly rich in noble deeds, but William Cobbett and John Wilkes did not suffer imprisonment and exile to enable journalists to bribe, bully and deceive their way into other people’s bedrooms. Nor, if you forgive the anachronism, did they have in mind the sort of people who would illegally hack into the mobile phone messages of the famous on the off-chance they might learn something titillating. These martyrs in the cause of press freedom had some meaningful conception that the press needed to be free to serve the public interest, and they did not see the public interest merely as a smokescreen.
You may by now be thinking that this is all very precious, and wouldn’t it be a dull world if we didn’t have these naughty boys in the tabloids blowing raspberries and shaking things up? It’s a comfortable attitude so long as you are not at risk of being a victim of the intrusion for which it is a cover, and so long as you don’t care that innocent people suffer for it. But spare a thought for those of us who teach the journalists of the future. What are we supposed to tell them? “Don’t worry about ethics because, so long as only a minority of people suffer from what you do, the majority will thank you for making the world a more diverting place”? That is not a viable attitude.
The privacy invaders use another version of that argument. They suggest that they are journalists, but the anarchic, irreverent, pushy part of the business, keeping the rest on its toes and preventing complacency. Again this isn’t viable. They don’t keep journalism virtuous; they drag it down, routinely showing contempt for the kind of boundaries they demand to see enforced in every other part of society. When the News of the World was convicted of illegally breaching Max Mosley’s privacy, it raised two fingers to the court, attacked the judge and the law and did nothing whatever to alter its habits. When the Express was caught libelling the McCanns, nobody was disciplined and nothing changed and, as we have seen, the editor mocked the idea that it should be otherwise. When Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, produced evidence in 2008 that his phone had been hacked by the News of the World, the paper paid him £700,000 to shut up and go away.
For the privacy intruders the water can never be muddy enough. We are told that celebrities collaborate in their own exposure and it’s all part of the modern publicity industry. Often true, no doubt, but not always — and any journalist should be able to tell the difference between the person who wants to tell or sell a story and the person who has to be stalked, deceived and bullied for a story. We are told that public figures have an obligation to behave in certain ways because they are “role models”. Among the many problems with this are that the standards are arbitrarily set by editors and inconsistently applied, simply because the test is not what is right or wrong but what will sell newspapers on a given day. And editors who live by such dictates (and rely on dubious means to get their stories) are surely the last people we should rely on to judge what is appropriate conduct and what is not. We are also told that this is all about power and privilege, that the protection of privacy is a confidence trick designed to conceal from us the wrongdoing of top people. This is a con trick in itself. It just happens that editors aren’t usually interested in intruding upon the privacy of the poor, but when the time comes that they are — say in the case of victims of crime or with bereaved families — they often show no mercy. Rich or poor, they will stitch you up if it suits them.
Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, has offered a different and curious defence. In a speech in 2008 he argued:
“… if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process”.
This implies that professional intrusion into privacy is a price society has to pay if people are to be informed about things that are genuinely in the public interest. That can’t be right. It is true that the News of the World carries coverage of public affairs, indeed it occasionally prints front-page stories which are genuinely in the public interest — its coverage of match-fixing in cricket was a case in point. But journalists know that every story has to stand on its own ethical merits. Because you have published one worthy story does not mean that in the next one you have a licence to intrude. That is like saying that if you get 20 stories right you are free to commit a libel in the 21st, providing the story helps to keep your paper afloat. If the News of the World is to survive, it should pay its way by reporting in the public interest, full stop.
Let us say, then, that we are going to make a distinction between journalism and intruding in people’s privacy. Two questions immediately arise. First, where is the line between the two? And second, what difference does it make?
This is not simply a matter of drawing a line between tabloids and broadsheets, as they used to be, or between populars and qualities, as they were before that. In the first instance, we are identifying a kind of activity, but from there it is a short step to knowing who the people are who routinely engage in that activity, and which are the organisations that encourage, condone and trade by it. It is not all that complicated. The new non-journalist category, incidentally, will include some people not previously thought of as journalists, people like Glenn Mulcaire, Jonathan Rees and Steve Whittamore — private detectives who in their day were employed by the News of the World and who have all, incidentally, been convicted of crimes. Is this snobbish? Only if you believe there is something elitist about having ethical standards. Is it realistic? If we put aside the obfuscation, and make the effort to recognise these distinctive activities when we see them, yes. It really is not such an effort to tell the difference between those who want to inform and entertain and those who share the motivation of the former assistant news editor on the News of the World who told a colleague in 2002: “This is what we do. … We go out and destroy other people’s lives.” And it could be argued that making the distinction might strengthen the hand of those people in the relevant organisations who want to behave ethically.
An urgent matter
Will it make a difference? Certainly not in the sense that it will solve the privacy problem, and put an end to unjustified intrusion. That argument will run and run, and it is likely that no satisfactory boundaries will ever be fixed. Moreover the intruders, who are resourceful, will find ways to shield at least some of what they do. But the distinction will help to clarify the debate by separating those participants who have no real interest in ethical conduct or the public interest from those who do. It will more clearly expose the interests of those who argue that that law which allows scrutiny of the activities of a corporation must also allow scrutiny of the private life of an individual. And it will surely lend extra weight to the demands of journalists to be free to do what is genuinely the work of journalism.
This is an urgent matter. Because of the serial horrors — McCann, Mosley, hacking — the demand for statutory regulation of the press is growing. The Press Complaints Commission has failed to shore up standards or to convince the public that the press is sincere in wanting to regulate itself. If journalists, for reasons of nostalgia, inertia, confusion or misplaced loyalty, choose to keep swimming with the privacy intruders, they may well drown with them. If they push themselves free, then there is a better chance that we will find ways of protecting the freedoms that are vital to journalism.
Most of all, though, a clearer distinction will benefit the reading public. The more distance that opens up between ethical journalism and professional intrusion into privacy, the more the public will understand what it is getting and what it can trust. And that is in the public interest.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University and former media columnist at the New Statesman. He was a journalist at Reuters and the Independent. His books include The Case of Stephen Lawrence (Penguin).
Brian Cathcart’s “Code breakers” originally appeared in the Index on Censorship magazine, “Privacy is dead! long live privacy”, and is reproduced with permission and thanks.