Sometimes, journalists should be outside the law
The liberal media’s anti-Andy Coulson campaign is further empowering the state at the expense of press freedom.
‘Coulson is gone, but the stench remains.’
The Observer’s leader headline was pretty much spot on. The whole affair stinks. One minute, its sister paper the Guardian is busy publishing illegally obtained diplomatic cables, full of snidey gossip and innuendo, courtesy of Wikileaks; the next it is slamming UK tabloid the News of the World, and by association its owners The (Evil) Murdoch Empire, for illegally obtaining and publishing snidey gossip and innuendo. There is no other phrase for it: rank hypocrisy. And it reeks.
Not that the Observer is really owning up to the less-than-fragrant double standards at work. Quite the opposite, in fact. The resignation of David Cameron’s director of communications Andy Coulson on Friday seems to have caused the Guardian’s self-righteousness to go into overdrive. Coulson, after all, was a man who was not only editor of the NoTW when its royal reporter Clive Goodman and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were found guilty of hacking into the private phone messages of the great and average three years ago – he has also consistently maintained that the practice of so-called phone-hacking was limited to this one reporter. No one else – not Coulson, not his successor Rebekah Brooks, and definitely not his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch – had any knowledge of it. Amid calls for a more thorough police investigation into the affair, Coulson’s resignation has not been seen as the action of an innocent man.
As far as the Guardian and the Observer are concerned, they are waging the good fight. No longer will tabloid reporters feel free to ride roughshod over fame-hungry celebrities’ right to privacy. No longer will sleazy, borderline-criminal journalists feel able to get a scoop on a philandering politician via less-than-respectful means. Dumbed-down gossip for the masses is out; high-minded journalism is in.
The hypocrisy of the crusade against the phone-hacking NoTW seems to have escaped the attention of these august publications. Towards the end of last year, the Guardian, in association with the New York Times, Le Monde and Der Spiegel, took great delight in sifting through Wikileaks’ diplomatic cables and publishing the juiciest, most salacious parts. We heard that diplomats thought Silvio Berlusconi vain, feckless and weak; we learnt that Kim Jong-il was a ‘flabby old chap’; and we were told that Colonel Gadaffi was probably screwing his Ukrainian assistant. There were giblets about China’s possible attitude to North Korea and rumours of bitching in the Middle East, but by and large what the Guardian took great, extended delight in publishing was trumped-up gossip obtained by illegal means.
Not that its publishers would ever admit parallels with the NoTW’s phone-hacked material. They are totally different cases, Guardianistas contend. What the NoTW was publishing was low-brow, dumbed-down and in nothing but the most tawdry of interests, whereas what the Guardian and friends were publishing was high-brow, intellectual and in nothing but the most public of interests. It was, in short, good for us. But this, the ‘public interest defence’, rests, as Brendan O’Neill has shown, not on what we the public want to know, but on what they the editors think we should know. Or, as O’Neill put it, on ‘what they think is good for the public’.
The problem with this is that the only people who can really decide what we ought to know, and what newspapers ought to publish, is us. It can’t be decided in advance by those who think they know best, safely ensconced in the Guardian’s editorial offices. It can only be decided by the public. What should concern the press, what should concern journalists, is not what the public ought to know, but what they as journalists should be free to report. This should be the paramount concern, the freedom to avail the public of the truth. Whether we deem it worth knowing or not is something for us to decide, not the press.
Debating the illegality of methods used by journalists to get at the truth is misdirected. The reason for that shouldn’t be hard to grasp: those threatened by having the truth revealed will do everything in their power to keep it under wraps. Little wonder journalists must sometimes transgress the law, particularly when it is being used to protect the interests of the powerful. For example, consider Laurie Manifold, investigations editor for the People during the 1960s and 1970s. To get stories, his reporters weren’t afraid to use such dubious techniques as subterfuge, covert tape recordings, and even fake companies. He and his team broke the law out of necessity, not complacency: the stories demanded it. It is unlikely, for instance, that Manifold would have been able to expose widespread, pornography-related corruption in the police force if he hadn’t been prepared to do what exposing the truth demanded. Ninety officers were suspended and 13 were convicted of offences. Inspiring everyone from the NoTW’s use of the ‘fake sheikh’ to Clive Entwistle’s The Cook Report, it is with good reason that Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media commentator, described Manifold affectionately as the ‘father of modern popular journalism’.
Yet so blinded are people like Greenslade by their animus towards anything bearing the Murdoch imprint that the hoary, journalistic aspiration to speak truth to power has now given way to demanding that journalists prostrate themselves before power. Greenslade himself has demanded that the police extend their investigation across the NoTW, while his Guardian colleague Jackie Ashley wants journalism in general fully exposed to the power of the state: ‘it’s time to shine the light on the one profession that has too often been able to work quietly, in the shadows, without full disclosure or scrutiny – journalism.’ In this, they echo the very people journalists have traditionally tried to hold to account: politicians. Cue deputy Labour Party leader Harriet Harman: ‘Nobody is above the law, no newspaper editor, no journalist.’
It is a bizarre reversal. So obsessed are some liberal journalists with the sinister spectre of Rupert Murdoch that they are prepared to condemn their own profession. Observer columnist Henry Porter, writing of the ‘dark energy’ around News international executives, made Murdoch sound less like a media businessman than something out of The Lord of the Rings. In this conspiratorial mindset, the police are cowed by him, MPs are fearful and the government is dependent. His is the enigmatic, Aussie-accented power behind the throne; his thoughts, transmitted via Fox News and the Sun, the thoughts of the stupid, duped masses.
The effect of this Murdoch obsession has been deleterious on any sense of press freedom, even among journalists themselves. Set beside the Darth Vader-esque bad guy that is Rupert, the state appears benevolent. Better the press is regulated, the argument goes, than Murdoch be free to fashion the world in his image.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.