This might not be a popular view – it may even be contentious – but there needs to be some balance against the hysteria that has surrounded the recent calls for state control of the media.
This is an incredibly complex issue so attempting to simplify things is fraught with difficulties – but here goes…
Point 1: ‘phone hacking is not necessarily a bad thing
Consider this scenario: journalists hacking the ‘phone of Milly Dowler were able to unearth vital information that enabled the police to find her alive and return her to her family. Her mother would be on TV praising the investigative efforts of the News Of The World, saying the paper had saved her daughter’s life when the police were coming up with blanks. Nobody would have cared how it was achieved, the newspaper would have survived and Leveson would never have happened. Or: what if ‘phone hacking had exposed Jimmy Saville to be a paedophile while he was still alive and unveiled a vile network that was preying on vulnerable young people? Once again, even if undercover work was not praised it would surely not be vilified. Such is the fine thread that all these issues hang on.
Point 2: journalists must always be allowed to use subterfuge
Many of those people who throw their hands up in horror at the out-of-control media that tells lies and tricks people for the purpose of getting a good story will be the very same people who are horrified by the abuse that was dealt out to residents of the Winterbourne View care home. This abuse had been going on for some time but it was undercover journalists, pretending to be someone they weren’t, lying and tricking their way into a care home, no doubt using forged documents, that exposed this disgusting behaviour. There hasn’t been an inquiry into how they did this because the end justified the means. Compare this with the scenarios above.
Incidentally, let us not pretend that this lauded piece of journalism has prevented care home abuse for good – it is guaranteed that this level of abuse is going on right now in homes across the country and it will not stop until the perpetrators are exposed.
Point 3: public interest is paramount
It can be debated what ‘public interest’ actually means. Is it in the public interest to know what a celebrity gets up to in their private life? Probably not, that’s more to do with being nosey. But let’s be honest here, an awful lot of people want this information otherwise it wouldn’t sell papers. Those who buy publications featuring photos taken without a person’s consent showing them in a state of undress/inebriation/anger or other supposedly shocking conditions cannot say press intrusion is a bad thing. And they cannot draw lines concerning levels of intrusion – use of a telephoto lens is acceptable but ‘phone hacking crosses some kind of imaginary ethical line? Hardly.
While covering this point, it is worth mentioning that one of the biggest issues to hit this country in years – and one which has horrified virtually everyone – has been MPs’ expenses. The scandalous use of public money to have moats cleaned, duck houses built and second mortgages paid off has seen political figures jailed and decades-long careers go to the wall. Did the police expose this? Did the government unearth the details? No. Information was leaked to (and bought by) a national newspaper. Not one person has said this should not have happened. The fact is that without this breaking of the law this scandal would never have been exposed and MPs would have continued to rip off taxpayers in perpetuity. Clearly an action taken in the public interest and an example of a newspaper doing all of us a vital service.
Point 4: be careful what you wish for
It was touched on in Point 3 but needs a little expansion – are there degrees of intrusion that are good and bad? Is hacking into the voicemail of royalty any more shocking than taking a photo of them topless on holiday? Again, it depends on what’s exposed. Or is the problem to do with who is the victim? Is it okay to hack into the ‘phone of a celebrity known for partying, violent outbursts or affairs but not into the ‘phone of a girl who has disappeared? Is it okay to use a telephoto lens to reveal a secret meeting between a politician and a drug dealer, say, but not to get a photo of a child’s private funeral? Surely, all right-minded people would hold the same views on this but is it realistic to expect a newspaper editor to make the same distinction?
What were witnesses at Leveson trying to say – that journalists, editors or media proprietors can be heartless, thoughtless and have no morals? We didn’t need all that time and money to tell us that.
And what were those who criticised the Prime Minister’s reluctance to bring in laws to control the press after – to stop all undercover journalism, to outlaw subterfuge, to say that public figures (many of whom are content to court publicity as long as it is on their terms) should be protected from intrusion? People calling for legislative control need to step back and consider what they are really asking for.
There are many hurt people out there who live for the day when the press have their wings clipped just as there are offenders out there who would love never to have their activities exposed.
It would be a very sad day indeed if the demands of the former played right into the hands of the latter.