Attacking press freedom in the name of privacy
Having made private conduct central to politics, it’s a bit rich for MPs now to slate the press for being obsessed with private peccadilloes.
At the Edinburgh international Book Festival over the weekend, Sarah Brown, author of the Downing Street misery memoirs Behind the Black Door, had a veritable treat in store for her audience. A surprise guest. One can only imagine the anticipation before he made his appearance. And one can only imagine the deflation when he actually appeared, ex-prime minister Gordon Brown, the man with a rain cloud for a hat and a demeanour to darken even the most desolate of wakes.
But Brown is energised these days. He’s got a cause, a target. And he can see that finally, in light of the interminable phone-hacking furore, this target – the press – is on the defensive. Sunday was no different, as once again Brown rounded on journalists and their surfeit of freedom.
So when questioned by an audience member about the phone-hacking scandal, Brown renewed the attack he had made a few weeks ago in parliament. Then, his anger was matched by his rhetoric as he launched himself, figurative fists flying rather than clunking, into the ‘criminal media nexus’ of News International. He talked of the ‘wholly innocent’ men, women and children who had been treated as ‘public property’, and he described how ‘their private and inner most feelings and their private tears [were] bought and sold by News International for commercial gain’.
In Edinburgh on Sunday there was less rage in his attack, no doubt because he was attacking the press more broadly rather than just Rupert Murdoch’s outfit, but his target remained the same: the press’s relentless pursuit of people’s private lives, their willingness to rip an individual to shreds in the interest of a story. ‘In Britain’, Brown said, ‘what the press do if they want to really get at someone is try to challenge their motives and integrity, and try to suggest that they are not the person that they say they are… the way the press acts is that they try to doubt people’s motives and try to suggest we have a malign purpose, and they try to destroy people’s character.’ Brown proceeded to talk of the time when the Sun took photos of him praying at the 2007 Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall and claimed that he had fallen asleep during the sermon.
Specific anecdotes aside, Brown’s criticism is far from unfamiliar. In fact it echoes that of his New Labour frenemy Tony Blair, who in 2007, as outgoing prime minister, decided to criticise the ‘feral beast’ that the press had become, ‘just tearing people and reputations to bits’. In this reading, the press, especially its redtop contingency, is held responsible for nothing less than the degeneration of public life. In the words of a columnist at the respectable Guardian newspaper, the scandal-seeking, profit-driven tabloids have made ‘this a shallower, more selfish country’. Peter Wilby at the same paper prefers to talk of how the Sun et al have ‘coarsened British culture’.
If this narrative is to be believed, the press has not just coarsened and phwoarified British culture, reducing so-called watercooler discussion to celebrity and political sex scandals, but it has also degraded and trivialised our political and civic life. As Blair argued four years ago, the obsession with digging dirt, with seeing the venal motive in every public act, ‘saps the country’s confidence and self-belief’: ‘It undermines [society’s] assessment of itself, its institutions and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.’ Where there was once trust, now just a corrosive cynicism prevails – and it is all down to the press.
This is not an accusation levelled solely against the redtops. The broadsheets’ increased interest in personality, character and scandal is equally as marked, something writ large in the diminution and sometimes absence of parliamentary reporting from their pages. Given that for most of the twentieth century, between 400 and 700 lines a day were dedicated just to reporting on parliamentary debates, the loss of interest (and lines) is notable (1). In a piece written in 2008 for the British Journalism Review, ex-BBC political editor John Cole wrote: ‘If you seek the reason parliament now stands so low in public esteem, do not look only at the quality of the speeches, which is doubtless as uneven as ever it was, but at the paucity of the coverage.’
The striking aspect of such criticism is that at some level it resonates. The horizons of public life do seem limited. And what has often passed for politics over the past couple of decades does seem increasingly, achingly trivial. Whether it’s current PM David Cameron snapped drinking champagne at, er, a Spectator champagne reception or, way back in 2002, his predecessor Tony Blair supposedly trying to get a prominent position at the Queen Mother’s funeral, the press seem obsessed with appearances, or rather with politicians failing to keep theirs up. Politics seems to have been sacrificed for a forensic examination of personality.
And yet there’s something that really sticks in the craw seeing the political class – helped by a commentariat which thinks itself above tawdry story-grubbing – come together to condemn the press for diminishing public life, slamming it for reducing public virtue to little more than a parade of private vice. And that is because politicians are not the victims of a personality-obsessed press that has grown craven in search of dwindling profits. Rather, those politicians played a key role in making a public and political virtue of private conduct.
In fact, New Labour’s success was as a party more or less born from this elevation of private and personal conduct into the lingua franca of political life. At the time of New Labour’s rise, during the mid-1990s, its promotion of its members’ general decency was no doubt viewed as a pragmatic step. New Labour was seen as simply capitalising on the rot at the heart of the then Conservative government, whose private failings were manifest in the libel and perjury trials of Tory minister Jonathan Aitken and the ‘cash for questions’ imbroglio of his colleague Neil Hamilton between 1994 and 1996. But New Labour did not just take advantage of its parliamentary rivals’ misfortunes. It made being ‘clean’, being of unblemished character, being privately virtuous, into its political cause.
Such was the political importance now being ascribed to the character of politicians that New Labour’s key 1997 manifesto pledge was to ‘clean up politics’ and ‘reform party funding to end sleaze’. In place of the ‘the totalising ideologies’ of yore, as Tony Blair described left and right in 1996, stood politicians themselves (2). Shorn of grand, overarching political vision, what was important was personal conduct, being seen to be morally upstanding.
The problem with this elevation of private conduct into a public virtue is that it made private misconduct supremely newsworthy. If your electoral ticket is based on appearing as white as Martin Bell’s famously white suit, then any journalist worth his salt will try to seek out the stains. The exposure of hypocrisy becomes the objective. New Labour discovered this in the subsequent 13 years of its rule. From the numerous party-funding scandals to ‘peerages for cash’ right up to the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, the cross-party obsession with appearing to be clean, with insisting upon being judged for what one is rather than what one stands for, drove the press to concentrate on what politicians are rather than what they stand for (if anything). And now, with the phone-hacking scandal tainting anyone it touches, even David Cameron, through his appointment of ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, is having his private conduct scrutinised for, as Gordon Brown put it, ‘malign purpose’.
Yet rather than grasp the diminution and trivialisation of political life in terms of the diminution and trivialisation of politics, its political party-led reduction to character and private conduct, politicians, even fading ones like Brown, feel able to blame everything on the press. And worryingly, given the current post-hackgate climate, few are taking Brown up on what looks and feels like an impending clampdown on press freedom.
It probably won’t seem like an assault on press freedom, of course. The talk will be of ‘raising journalistic standards’, of encouraging journalists to concentrate on the ‘public interest’, of becoming less ‘feral’. But take away the soft-soaping rhetoric and the curtailment of press freedom becomes clear: it is a demand that the press be respectable and pursue respectable stories. While stories about MPs’ expenses and ministers’ peccadilloes might not be edifying, better an unedifying but free press than a controlled one full of prescribed stories about how brilliant a carbon floor price is.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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