Interview: Mike Jempson

Mike Jempson, director of the PressWise Trust, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

Mike Jempson’s comments form part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

Many ordinary people contact the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), such as Barry Melarickus. He took a complaint to the PCC because he had been derided in a story in a local newspaper. He was a homeless man who had had a brief history of psychiatric ill-health. He had lost his family and his job, and was living on the street and getting himself back together with the help of Big Issue when the Sun ran its story saying somebody on the streets of London was making £1000 from begging. So every local newspaper in Christendom went looking for their version, and Barry was the guy who was found by journalists in Bristol.

One of the things he’d managed to do was get a mobility allowance. He needed a car because he’d had a motorbike accident and had broken his legs and had lost his kneecaps. He was perfectly entitled to his car, but the story that was run on the front page of the Bristol Evening Post said he was ‘TAKING THE ‘P” – his specially adapted car having a ‘P’ registration. The article suggested that Barry, who had a brand new car, was a fraud and that he’d run away from reporters when they approached him. This was incorrect. In fact he had taken them into his temporary accommodation and gave them a long interview.

We took Barry’s complaint to the PCC. It was decided that saying a man with no kneecaps had run away from the press was not a ‘significant’ enough inaccuracy for them to uphold his complaint. So this man, whose life had been torn apart on the front page of the local paper in front of all his friends and family, was left looking like the fraud the newspaper had presented him to be. The reporters who wrote that story won a prize for their investigative journalism and Barry killed himself.

When the press invade the privacy of ordinary people and get things wrong, it has extraordinary consequences. So it is quite a serious issue – but not one that would make me say that we should have a privacy law directed against the media.

The last major journalistic job that I did before I began working full time at PressWise was investigating paedophile rings for a TV programme. What was interesting was that about 80 percent of the material we prepared couldn’t be used because of all sorts of other laws that prevent disclosure and the risk of libel. There are quite enough laws that restrict press freedom as it is.

However, PressWise campaigned for the Human Rights Act because we think it’s about time the public in Britain are treated as adults and have rights, rather than being mere ‘subjects’. We believe that there should be an opportunity to balance our rights to privacy against the right of freedom of expression. We are very pleased we now have a forum that allows this debate to take place, and I would not support a tighter privacy law.

The PCC’s Bob Pinker asked how far do you give up your privacy if you voluntarily put yourself in the public domain? He has said that the PCC’s rulings suggest that there is a limit on that; you don’t give up your rights all the time.

But I have another little story about a couple who had a surrogate child – which was unusual in 1989. The press were all over them. They didn’t know what to do, but a journalist said the way to avoid all this hassle was to sell their story as an ‘exclusive’. So these naive, rather frightened people agreed to do this. And every time newspapers regurgitate the story, they identify their child and publish a photo of their baby. The couple have complained, saying that their child needs to be given the chance to survive puberty, at a new school, without being hassled. But each time the PCC has found against them on the grounds that they sold their story in the first place. So I’d like to take issue with what Bob Pinker has said on that.

The press are business organisations that are designed to make money. Some of them are international organisations with a larger budget than some governments. They have access to communications technologies and techniques, which means that they can get at an awful lot of information about us. They are entitled to – if they are trying to investigate a crime or if they are trying to protect the public from some public health scandal or some form of hypocrisy that is dangerous to the public. They have this access that most of us don’t even know about, so I think that it’s right that we should be protected against them misusing their power.

There is another case of a popular young actor called David Scarboro who was in Grange Hill and then EastEnders. He became ill. He’d been the focus of quite a bit of media attention prior to that, but then the News of the World discovered that he was in a psychiatric unit, and they took pictures of it and identified him as being there. Scarboro left the psychiatric unit because he could no longer get the treatment that he needed there, and quite inaccurate stories about his condition were being published. It drove that young man, who was only 19 or 20 at the time, to the top of Beechy Head and then down on to the rocks below. That was in 1989.

I would have thought the press should have learned some lessons from that, but we’ve still got the chairman of the PCC saying to Anna Ford, who went on a private holiday just last year, that if she wants privacy she should stay off the beach. I think that is unacceptable.

So I say it’s important that we have not a specific privacy law, but a right and an opportunity to defend our rights in relation to the power of the press.

I think there is a difference in cases of finding out the truth where it is at odds with the public persona – say, a bishop who is committed to celibacy but who is having an affair with his housekeeper. The question I would ask here is: how are those stories obtained? How do we get the story about the football star who has three-in-a-bed romps at a hotel? Nowadays, people who work in hotels know they can make money if they tip somebody off. Photographers turn up to get the pictures, so we know what the woman looks like. She’ll then get approached by a journalist and – this is what I find really offensive – she’ll be told: ‘Look, we’re gonna do this story anyway, we know what you were up to but if you come on to our side and give your version of the events, at least your side of the story will be told. So do you know how big he is? How good was he in bed? How many times that night? We’ll give you some money.’

And then what happens is that the woman is presented as a ‘Kiss and Sell’ whore. It’s very interesting how it is the woman who is so often vilified. What I find really unpleasant is that everybody now knows that there’s a price for salacious information. The newspapers want to sell, so they’re prepared to spend money and that way people’s privacy gets invaded – for a price.

Mike Jempson is director of the PressWise Trust. He specialises in human rights and media ethics, and is the media child rights coordinator for the International Federation of Journalists.

This is an extract of a speech given at the debate Private Lives, Public People, at the London School of Economics on 7 March 2001. It was co-organised by the LIRE media group, the Society of Editors, the Media Society and the LSE Media group.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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