Tag: press

Who cares about the public interest?

It will take more than three wise men and an infinite number of women bishops to decide the right action to take on the Leveson Report.

In one camp we have those who think we must install a statutory body to keep newspapers in order: failure to do so would be a cop-out. And in the other assortment of tents we have those who are concerned that any legal handcuffs could be misused, and that a free press is vital to a democratic society.

The former argue that any government likely to be elected in such a nice country as the UK would hardly shackle the press in any damaging way. They have clearly forgotten that the Germans, who are basically nice people like us, elected Hitler.

In other words, put temptation and enough fear in the hands of those keen to secure power, and they are likely to succumb to it. Why make it easy for them to shut down a main focus of criticism? Cameron probably wouldn’t do it, but I can think of a few other prominent politicians who might.

We are not quite at the time of year when three wise men might be available. Sadly, women bishops are also not to hand. But we do have Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and panellist on Have I Got News for You, the TV news quiz that teeters between funny, puerile and self-righteous (the last two usually simultaneous).

Mr Hislop is a wise man where press freedom is concerned, although (or maybe because) he runs a satirical newspaper. He makes the rather vital point that all the misdemeanours, outrages and appalling behaviour that gave rise to the Leveson Inquiry are in fact already crimes, and so the perpetrators could have been arrested and charged, whether or not they happened to run or work for newspapers. The fact that they were not cannot be laid at the door of the Press.

There is absolutely no need for further laws, of which there are already far too many: after all, the freest country has the fewest laws. And we want to be free, don’t we?

In any case there is an important distinction to be made between scandal sheets and newspapers. The Code of Conduct for newspapers, adhered to fiercely by the local and regional newspapers praised by Leveson, relates borderline behaviour, like long lens photography and violation of privacy, to what is in the public interest, and that is a widely misunderstood term.

It certainly does not mean “what interests the public”. The public, sadly, does not like what it says it likes; if it did, the Sun would never have had the highest circulation figures. Like St Paul, the good that the public would they do not: but the evil which they would not, that they do. Or as Clive Barnes said in relation to television, “the most terrifying thing is what people do want”.

I think we all understand that. We are the public.

The public interest is defined by the Code of Conduct as “detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety; protecting public health and safety; or preventing the public from being misled”; and these are important matters, truly in the interests of us all. It cannot be right to  hamstring newspapers who are doing this kind of public service. Can it?

Of course it’s possible to be too idealistic about “good” local newspapers, who may not engage in phone hacking, but can skew readers’ views of key issues by taking positions that shut out views other than their own. There is no such thing as truly objective news, just as there is no such thing as a truly objective tweet or Facebook status.

You could go further and say it’s futile locking journalists away and handing out free klaxons to those with no code of conduct whatsoever. Either you want free speech, or you don’t.  It’s an interesting question.