Interview: Neil Wallis

Neil Wallis, editor, The People newspaper, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

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

People like me, an editor of a national tabloid newspaper, don’t often come to public events discussing privacy and the press. We are frankly on a hiding to nothing. The entire privacy debate hinges effectively on a pejorative perception – justified or not – of newspapers like mine by people like you.

Despite that, and for the same reason I went on TV and radio about the anonymity ruling about the killers of James Bulger, I’m engaging in this debate because it’s a subject that I feel passionately about. You might disagree with me, but hopefully by the end you will know I feel strongly about what I’m saying. And as Bob Satchwell, of the Society of Editors, said as he twisted my arm up my back (and he is a big bloke) – if people like me don’t fight our corner, what chance have we got?

So to begin with I want you to consider some appointments. Robert Maxwell, in charge of Pension Funds. Jonathon Aitken, leader of the Opposition and potential next Prime Minister. Neil Hamilton, shadow treasury minister. Jeffrey Archer, Mayor of London. Sir Peter Hardy, Chief of the Defence Staff. Ron Davies, First Minister of Wales.

Or how about these wholesome images: Mick Jagger, faithful husband; Hugh Grant, butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth matinee idol; Richard Bacon, squeaky clean children’s TV presenter; Frank Bough, avuncular current affairs presenter and wearer of famous pullovers.

I could go on. Every one of these is a public figure or a public role model who was exposed as a hypocrite or a crook by a free press, which often defied brutal intimidation to reveal that in these people’s private lives, their behaviour was completely at odds with their public images and positions. Each time this was done by newspapers probing into subjects, and facing the accusation that we were sticking our noses into people’s private lives.

I think it’s almost impossible to argue intelligently against media investigation of those cases I just listed. I think that most of us would agree that the Archer and Aiken stories were press freedom at its best. It is my guess that most of us would argue that free press is an essential ingredient of democracy, but that some also believe that they know of cases of inaccuracy, or of newspapers’ intrusion into private lives. There is a conflict between these two views: we want a free press, but we also want to tell it how to behave.

The brutal truth is that you can’t have one without the other. Because if you try to legislate against cases of alleged intrusion, the rules that you bring in would also legislate against the very cases I have talked about. Take away the right to investigate the drug habits of a children’s TV presenter or the sex antics of an apparently upstanding and happily married police chief, role models all in their public personas, and you also take away the right to investigate Aiken, Archer, Hamilton and the rest

Aha! I hear the lawyers amongst you cry – our judges will protect us. We can produce a defence of public interest. That would justify all those cases above, wouldn’t it? Outlaw the cases we don’t approve of. The truth is that it won’t work like that. The truth is that the judiciary in this country is overwhelming elderly, upper class, public-school educated, male – members of a self-perpetuating establishment that has demonstrated no sympathy whatsoever to the causes of press freedom in this country. Spycatcher, Shayler, Bravo-Two-Zero, Stevens – just a few of a multitude of examples where judges have defied common sense and the reality of what’s happening in the rest of the world, in order to protect the British establishment.

Can people seriously suggest that we entrust press freedom, the freedom that brought you the stories that I’m talking about to people like the judiciary? Don’t forget we’re talking about the same judiciary, the same legal establishment that time and time again turned down appeals for wrongful convictions, for everybody from the Birmingham Six to the Guilford Four. We’re talking about the same sort of people who decided to leave a man called Stephen Downing in prison over Christmas, rather than disturb a lawyer’s holiday plans. Mr Downing, incidentally, is the man in the Matlock case and had been in prison for thirty years for a murder he didn’t commit, but the establishment decided just to leave him in there for another couple of months.

The truth is that the imposition of privacy laws would mean that the rich, like Robert Maxwell, the powerful, like Jonathon Aiken, and governments would use it to bend the law and gag the press. Don’t fall for the line that it will benefit ordinary people. Where will they find the money to fund legal actions against the press? The rich and famous can, the rich and the powerful can.

And anyway, where is the real evidence that ordinary people are victims of a predatory press? Most stories in the national tabloid press concern the famous, those in public positions or public office. Or those who’ve got themselves into trouble. And as Lord Denning said during the Thalidomide case, there’s no privacy in iniquity. To suggest that the general public are victims of regular intrusion or harassment is self-serving nonsense dished up by those seeking to control what the public is told about the behaviour of the rich and powerful.

The truth is that it’s about time people faced up to what the role of free press in a free society is. It’s not to be fair, it’s not to be partisan, it’s not to be balanced. Our role, and I mean this globally about the press, whether tabloid or broadsheet, is to hold to account those who wield power and influence. And that includes everybody, from the cheating politician who uses his family to get elected, to the fodder of OK! and Hello! and the Daily Star and The People and the Mirror. Or the fresh-faced soap star who wants to be in our papers when it suits him but is secretly selling drugs on the side.

Our role is to tell people what is going on in the world and funnily enough it’s often not what the powers say it should be or what they actually say it is. To entertain? Why not? Why shouldn’t we entertain? Television does it rather well. And also we’re here to interpret the news and comment on it and again that interpretation may well be not what the establishment, what the government want it to be. But that’s the point of freedom surely?

Don’t forget that news was once defined as anything people don’t want you to know. All the rest is PR. The fact is what some people see as news and fit to be printed is not what most people in the outside world want to read or hear about. It’s an almost breathtaking arrogance, I believe, to suggest that what goes in the tabloid press is not right for those who choose to read it.

Why are we obsessed by celebrities? All I know is we are. Why are we obsessed by football? All I know is we are. The Great Public out there have decided that’s what they’re interested in. And this interest is getting bigger. What is the growth area in magazines in this country? OK!, Hello! and another one called Now. But they sell in the region of 1.5 million copies every week with a cover price in the region of £1.50 – £2. People are obsessed by it. One of the indicators of that of course is that television and radio have desperately moved that way. They want to make OK! TV work. You listen to Radio 5 Live and essentially it is tabloid radio. That’s the way the world is moving.

My point is, who says that’s wrong? Some suggests that this interest in celebrity is not dignified, that is not proper. But it would seem to me that if that’s what 12 million people a day buy a tabloid newspaper for, they are making a value judgement with their money. It is true that people don’t read as many tabloids as they used to. But sadly the figures show that by a majority of about 4-1 that they’ve not turned to the broadsheets or to the broadcast media instead.

It’s true we get it wrong from time to time, and it’s bloody painful when we do. We make misjudgements, we’re also human and we run businesses. I don’t believe that those errors are frequent – and they are certainly not deliberate. When we do get it wrong the public let us know about it. To this day the people of Liverpool have not forgiven the Sun for their coverage of Hillsborough. The newspaper-buying public decided that after the tragic death of Princess Diana that they disliked the way we have treated her – a different debate incidentally. Our circulations suffered brutally. The bottom line of our newspapers suffered brutally.

It is true that as a newspaper industry we decided that we needed to re-examine ourselves and the way we conduct ourselves. The result of that was what I believe to be a tough and powerful system of highly effective self-regulation, called the Press Complaints Commission.

So the question really is this – do we still get it wrong enough to throw the baby out with the bath water? Are the perceived crimes of the press currently so bad that you want to bring in a privacy law that will without doubt be used and abused to protect the Maxwells, the Aitkens, the Hamiltons and the Archers? You don’t have to like me or the paper I produce. But I am entitled to have the same rights as a liberal establishment Guardian, or reactionary establishment Telegraph, or the good old BBC. You can’t have one role for them and another for the Sun, the Mirror or me.

I don’t believe there is a problem with privacy in this country. I think the problem is that there are people who are willing to risk damaging our democracy for their own ends in the pursuit of it.

Neil Wallis is editor of The People newspaper.

This is a copy of a speech given at the debate entitled ‘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.

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