Does it show double standards to condemn David Miranda’s detention without criticising the arrest of journalists suspected of illegal phone hacking and bribery? There are news organisations that want us to believe it does.
Here is the Daily Mail:
“The Guardian continues to be vociferous in its demands for police to pursue tabloid journalists suspected of acting illegally. Is the paper so arrogant and hypocritical as to believe it is itself above the law?”
And here, the Spectator:
”It is good to see the Guardian suddenly rediscover its interest in the sanctity of a free press. Just five months ago, the paper seemed to have given up on the idea, when it backed the statutory regulation of newspapers. It did not show any particular alarm when Rupert Murdoch’s journalists were hauled out of bed at 6am and had their computers confiscated while police tried to identify their sources.”
You could hardly ask for better evidence of the inability of parts of our national press to understand their modern predicament. These editorial writers blithely parade their state of denial about the chronic failures of the industry that were exposed at the Leveson inquiry, and display for all to see the self-centredness with which they greet important events. Always, they are the victims.
Lord Justice Leveson wrote in his report: “The press, operating properly and in the public interest, is one of the true safeguards of our democracy.” The Guardian understands that principle, which is why it strives to hold power to account. But most of the rest of the press does not, as their failure to grasp the enormity of the NSA/GCHQ story has demonstrated.
The Daily Mail and the Spectator apparently don’t care much if spooks routinely capture and comb all our emails and phone traffic. Nor do they care much if direct government pressure on an editor and heavy-handed policing at Heathrow are deployed in the effort to curtail an investigation that is in manifestly the public interest.
No, what really seems to offend them is the arrest of journalists by police investigating alleged corruption of officials and intrusion into privacy. It’s worth noting that no attempt was made on the pages of the Mail or Spectator to argue that the information alleged to have been obtained through phone hacking, blagging and payments to public officials related to matters of public interest.
And in any case, for any criminal prosecution to proceed, it already has to pass a public interest test. The test, clarified further in guidelines published by the director of public prosecutions, was greeted with approval by the press, and makes it unthinkable that a prosecution could ever proceed from a case with a clear public interest justification like the illegally obtained hard drive containing details of MPs’ expenses, purchased by the Telegraph.
Nonetheless, some leader writers seem outraged that people like them – heavens, people with whom they may actually have had dinner – are being subjected to the indignities of the criminal justice system. (These are of course indignities routinely visited upon vast numbers of people who fall under suspicion, but the Mail and the Spectator care little about that.) The police have sought to patiently explain this to newspapers but apparently without success.
Such publications are not safeguarding democracy as they are supposed to do. Instead they shamelessly abuse the power of the press in the attempt to protect the status quo. They control the megaphone and they are determined to make sure that the only noise in the air is their own whining.
They do not grasp their own isolation, nor how far their distorted view damages their own position. The Leveson report described at great length the pattern of their past misconduct and the cynical devices employed to avoid accountability. Poll after poll shows that the public does not believe large sections of the press when they write about their own affairs, nor trust them to regulate themselves on their own terms. Every party in parliament wants to see them clean up their act. And their past victims are vociferous in the demand for change. But still the editorial writers plead: “We are the victims.”
It was the bishop of Norwich, who speaks for the Church of England on the media, who pointed out in a Lords debate that this wilful isolation, this stubborn failure to face reality, was making things worse for the press:
”The sad thing is that there has been surprisingly little public repentance and a great deal of self-justification and lapses of memory. That alone should make us wary of the claims of editors that they can clean up their act without the independence of their regulator being guaranteed by statute or in some other way.”
There is a public debate to be had over how to strike the right balance between security, civil liberties, freedom of speech and privacy. Publishing the Snowden files has stimulated that discussion. Publishing information obtained illegally can be in the public interest. To muddle the vital debate around state surveillance with the conduct of police investigations into alleged surveillance by newspapers is a deliberate attempt to miss the point.
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director of Hacked Off. This article was first published by the Guardian Comment is Free.