Gale`s View – 20th July 2011
A free democracy needs a free press.
Those of us who have spent a little parliamentary time working as international election observers in hot, sweaty and sometimes hazardous locations around the world have propagated that message over and over again. Freedom, though, must embrace responsibility.
I have been a public critic of the Murdoch empire since the day when The Sun decided that it was in order to break the long-standing embargo publish the text of the Queen`s Christmas message two days before the broadcast. The paper`s action was crass and a gross discourtesy to Her Majesty but much more important to me was the realisation that an American Australian Republican apparently felt that he was so powerful as to be able to flout our traditions and customs with impunity.
I am surprised, therefore, that anyone else should be surprised that the diaspora of what used to be known as Fleet Street” should have descended from the gutter of salaciousness into the sewer of gross intrusion into the privacy and grief of those bereaved by murder or terrorism. Once you decide that anything goes” then there are literally no depths to which some will not sink.
Nor should we allow ourselves to be beguiled by the sanctimonious attitude of other newspapers into believing that the excesses that are now being exposed have been confined to Mr. Murdoch`s titles alone. I doubt that there is a national newspaper that has not either directly or through hired help waved chequebooks, scoured dustbins, eavesdropped upon private telephone conversations or peered through telephoto lenses in the cause of gathering information that is, of course, always In the Public Interest”.
The public interest” defence wears pretty thin on too many occasions and has, even at the hands of the Telegraph or the Times or the Guardian, become a euphemism for interesting to the public”. In other words, in a diminishing, cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world, it sells newspapers. It is not remotely surprising that left-wing Guardian, the bourgeoise Mail and the socialist BBC should be whooping with delight at the discomfiture of an arch rival.
Parliament, however, must not over-react. Mr. Gordon Brown, conveniently overlooking his own government`s less than edifying relationship with spin-doctors, enforcers and journalists while in office, has vented his private bitterness and spleen under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Miliband the Younger has seized his opportunity to score party-political points oblivious to the fact that his own appointment of Murdoch Man” Tom Baldwin is likely to come back to hit him behind the ears. And with glorious hindsight it is becoming clear that the appointment, by the Prime Minister, of Mr. Coulson as Press Officer was a high-risk strategy to say the least. Set a thief to catch a thief” may be a maxim and I do not doubt that Mr. Coulson has consummate abilities as a journalist but if you sup with the devil you need a very long spoon indeed!
The clamour, of course, is for more regulation”. What is actually needed, though, is not more regulation but a better enforcement of existing law and guidelines and the replacement of the Press Complaints Commission with a body wholly independent of politicians and the media and with the power to impose penalties and sanctions. The PCC has failed. It is funded by the Press, it is dominated by the Press and it is the creature of the Press. The alternative, libel action, is, as all newspaper proprietors know, beyond the reach of all but the super-rich. We have to establish a proper balance between the right to investigate and to hold the venal, the corrupt and the criminal to account and an ordinary citizen`s right to privacy without unlawful or unreasonable intrusion.
A word of caution, though, to those who will make recommendations for change: the last thing that the nation needs is another overweening, costly, bureaucratic institution staffed by the Quango Kings and Queens of Whitehall. Not a Press IPSA”, please!
Last Friday, as a result of a strike by journalists, BBC radio and television demonstrated just how very well they could present a slimmed-down, concise and low-cost news service without the services of top talent” presenters and correspondents”. With any luck the BBC`s new Chairman of Trustees, Lord (Chris) Patten, will have noticed how so many people appreciated a Robert Peston-free day and how very much of the license payers` fees could be better invested in programming were the Friday model” to be perpetuated. Of course those brave and highly-experienced foreign correspondents, working often in war zones, earn their crust, as do some domestic reporters, but perhaps the days when Auntie” finds it necessary to dispatch a star” presenter by first class air travel in order to second-guess the resident experts already on the ground may be coming to an end at last.