Interview: Phil Craig
Phil Craig, freelance TV producer and co-author of Diana: Story of a Princess, on free speech and privacy.
Phil Craig was interviewed as part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.
I can’t think of a single moment in my entire career when media codes of conduct have influenced my work. I’ve tended to be involved in stories where it has been pretty clear cut what the public interest is which is given a clear defence within codes. I am one of the few journalists who believe that there should actually be a privacy law.
To publish or broadcast the media must always have a public interest defence and it has to be a very strong defence. One has to hope that the courts will show common sense as to how that would be applied.
But I’ve never found myself working in the kind of area where I think the privacy law is most needed which is the area involving unknown people, the sort of people who feature in the sad, News of the World stories or the vicar who has been caught perhaps going out with the head chorister or that sort of thing or somebody who has never tried to tell their story or benefit from any publicity but has just being picked on by a rather salacious press. Fortunately for me I have never found myself doing that sort of journalism.
However, I have found myself threatened or compromised by the abuse of copyright law. I think that’s a very interesting area of law at the moment because I think in the absence of any privacy legislation a lot of people are trying to use copyright law to restrict the media as a form of censorship.
For example, many programmes were made about the royal family in the 1980s. ITN did several fly-on-the-wall programmes about Charles and Diana although the royal family has just about total editorial control, retained the complete copyright and would not allow other people to use that material. For example, there is an absolute ban on the use of Charles’ interview with Jonathon Dimbleby where he spoke about adultery even though it’s been widely broadcast and written about in books. In my television series about Diana we did use clips of that without permission however.
Editorial control is something companies impose a lot too. For instance I did a consumer affairs series for Channel 4. Often, if you are making a film about a product and trying to investigate the claims it might have made, it seems to me entirely appropriate to use their advertising. But they tried very hard to stop us by using copyright law and this law was never drafted to stop media investigations. It was drafted to prevent plagiarism.
But unfortunately there is a grey area and people with means and access to lawyers are trying use copyright law. I think it would be cleaner and simpler if there was a whole review of the area. You find yourself sitting with lawyers and the question they really ask isn’t ‘what does the law say?’ but ‘how likely are these people to charge you? Are the rich? Are they powerful?’ I think that’s rather sad. Media lawyers are looking at media law as if it codifies what is and what isn’t copyright and what is and what isn’t private.
I worked for many years at the BBC where there was much more concern about the rights of people’s privacy compared to my experience of newspaper journalism, especially tabloid ones. I don’t know if that’s changed. Clearly criticism of the journalism standards of the Donal MacIntyre investigative series on BBC1, for example, has left a slight sense of unease. When I was at Channel 4 we were doing two or three stories a week, mostly targeted at companies. We had very strong principles certainly on people’s right to reply.
You were encouraged by the guidelines at Channel 4 to be extremely upfront with the people you were making programmes about although that was seen as a bit of a problem because you had to tell interviewees what you knew and that gave them the opportunity to attack you. Interviewees didn’t always play fair but on the whole but I’m glad that we had to abide by those standards. I think it forces you to face up to the other sides’ point of view and as a result the material that you do broadcast is often very critical but at least it did reflect the other side. And I thought that was a positive thing.
I think that there is always a news value in stories about famous people. We are all to a greater or lesser degree fascinated by them and I think if you are in the public eye – and especially if you try to sell the story of your life for profit or to raise your profile – then as far as I am concerned you are fair game for the media to report on your private life.
If someone can come up with a contradictory version and can reveal that in fact that MP does actually have six mistresses and he’s campaigning on family values I think that is a valid news story. Or, that the celebrity you know spent years in detox even though in her own official biography that wasn’t revealed which I think is also a legitimate news story. It’s when the figures are not voluntarily offering themselves up to the media and the public that I think that a privacy law needs to be enacted.
I take a firm anti-censorship line but the critical question is: are they in the public eye? Did they start the publicity? I think there is a pact with the devil when you want to make a career in show business or even in politics – you’ll get very little sympathy from journalists and often the general public if you cry out about your own privacy. I’m afraid I feel that applies to their family life too.
I know that the Blair family is very concerned about the coverage of their children. But if you are the Prime Minister of the country and everything you do in your working life is often spun a political way, your persona is marketed as ‘decent chap family man’, you are making decisions about the education of the nations’ children then, it’s very relevant how your children are educated.
If you are passing laws about sexual morality or the age of consent, or when children should be allowed to drink then I’m afraid it is interesting how you handle those questions within your own family. And if Euan Blair was to suddenly speak out saying ‘I think the age of drinking in pubs should be lowered’ I think it should be a news story even though he is under age, because his father is who he is. No privacy law should try and stop journalists from reporting those kind of stories because the personal for those people is political.
The Press Complaints Commission has become an embarrassment. One senses that its first role is to protect the Royal family because it has very close personal connections to senior courtiers at Buckingham Palace. It is very unhealthy that they are so close. It is not as if the Royal Family are a neutral institution, above politics and spin. They are not. If you have ever had dealings with the royals as I have, you will quickly decide that they are themselves active spinners; they are a political organisation and they do not merit this very special protection they get from the PCC at all.
The way that stories suggesting Diana was mentally ill were and are spread – and that this supposed illness, rather than her husband’s affair was the reason for her marriage problems – shows how ‘engaged’ in the political game the royal family have become. And if anyone wants to complain about their press treatment following a briefing by a courtier, to whom do they appeal? – the PCC, which apears to have been acting as a adjunct to the palace for some years now, organising the famous ‘coming out party’ for Camilla Parker Bowles, and directly brokering (if the Telegraph is to believed) details of stories between the palace and the News of the World.
If it is true that Guy Black went on holiday with his partner Mark Boland (Prince Charles’s senior spin doctor) and the current editor of the News of the World then it confirms the inappropriately close personal connections between the PCC, the News of the Word and the royal family.
Throughout the production of my TV series on Diana, St James’ Palace (which is the private office of Prince Charles) went out of their way to put obstacles in our path. They associate with and brief hostile journalists from the worst kind of newspapers – the newspapers that the Prince of Wales used to publicly despise – but they won’t talk to a TV documentary company (Brook Lapping) with an unrivalled international reputation for fairness and balance.
They tried to prevent people from giving interviews, refused to give permission to talk to us on camera and tried to persuade as many people not to give interviews who wanted to give interviews. Behind closed doors – I believe – they threatened to use publicity against us and suggested that they might deploy Prince William.
I have spoken to several insiders – men and women who watched the royal marriage fall apart – and all confirm to me (with some bitterness) that the only authors to whom they have been encouraged to speak on the record have been those who have been clearly on the side of the Prince of Wales – and that their stories about the couple have come out with anti-Diana spin as a result.
At the moment St James’ Palace is a very political institution indeed. I believe – from many of the journalists and courtiers that I’ve been working with to make my programme – that they have planted stories not only against Diana but other enemies that Prince Charles thinks he has within the royal family such as Prince Edward. My understanding is that a lot of the hostile stories about Prince Edward have been encouraged and assisted by his brother’s private office.
To get around problems with the Palace, the company who I work for has a reputation of making very serious heavy weight documentaries. People trusted us but unfortunately – and every journalist wants to present the evidence with witnesses – quite a few of the real insiders who really know the story were not allowed to speak on camera although many wanted to. You have to fall back on off-the-record testimony although that’s not what you ideally want to do.
The PCC seem to be slightly dazzled by the powerful generally, not just the royals. An example is the Sun and the Ronnie Biggs story. If you listened to Lord Wakenham’s [then chairman of the PCC] lamentable defence of his decision to support the Sun’s publication of Biggs’ interview and their payment of his flight home, the only argument he seemed to put forward was that there was no complaint by the Foreign Office.
Surprise surprise! Just before an election, there was no complaint against the Sun newspaper by a new Labour minister at the Foreign Office about the Sun’s story. Wakeham’s decision is against everything the PCC stands for. They should have investigated the story based on their own code about non-payments to criminals and should have decided whether it was in the public interest or not to use criminals and criminals associates in order to boost circulation.
And they shouldn’t base their decision on whether the government was happy or not. I thought that was just gobsmacked and I think many journalists agreed with me. The PCC could do with an overhaul along with the laws on privacy.
Phil Craig has worked on television current affairs and history programmes for 17 years including ITV’s World in Action, BBC Panorama and Checkout, a consumer and health series for Channel 4. He is the author of Finest Hour, about world war two, and co-author of ‘Diana: Story of a Princess’.
Interview by Catherine Teare, Researcher, The LIRE media group
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