Sunday, 10 October 2010

The 'dark arts' debated

The idea of a panel of journalists debating phone-hacking, alongside other interested parties, was always going to be an interesting discussion and one worth having, not least because the ethics of the 'dark arts' are very rarely de-constructed in public. I went along to yet another evening debate at City University last week for a session entitled 'How far should a reporter go – the lessons of the News of the World phone-hacking story' expecting to hear from a group of people split down the middle on the issue.

The specifics of the News of the World case were not really discussed, on the presumption that the chair and panel members found it safer to discuss broader themes around privacy and journalistic surveillance. I suppose it would have been tempting to steam away furiously on an anti-Murdoch rant, with equally strong opinions from the other side of the fence, although as panelist Nick Davies pointed out, every major national newspaper has engaged in phone-hacking – it just so happened that it was Clive Goodman and the News of the World who happened to get caught.

My views on the subject changed somewhat during the course of the evening, and made me realise that there's a whole tool-kit available to the investigative journalist which isn't always questioned – let alone justified - in the pursuit of a public interest story. There are indeed, as the chair Andrew Caldecott QC pointed out, 'many layers' in such a case.

The first big surprise of the evening was the argument put forward by Max Mosley, former president of the FIA, and offspring of the notorious Mr and Mrs Oswald Mosley, fascists and Hitler sympathisers. As you might expect, his successful suing of the News of the World pitted him against the activities of the paper – but for which he didn't make any money out of. It wasn't difficult to disagree with Mosley's defence of privacy, in which he scalded Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre's self-assumed right to pillory on the paper's front page “someone who has a slightly more adventurous sex-life”. What did Dacre think sex was all about, Mosley asked? “Turning the lights off,waiting for three minutes then adopting the missionary position?”. More seriously, in response to the position of Roy Greenslade (Professor of Journalism at City and former Mirror editor, playing devil's advocate), who argued that the activities of celebrity 'role models' are fair game for adjudication by the national press, Mosley thought that if the morals of those public figures are considered unhealthy, “we shouldn't be publicising it”. (I did feel slightly sorry for Greenslade for having to put forward such a weak argument, but I'll be polite about him here as he's one of my lecturers).

The second biggest surprise was the view of Sir Ken McDonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions at the CPS. Having not heard him speak before, I expected an establishment, Civil Service standpoint on the question of how far journalists should go. He's also someone who's had his private life scrutinised by the jury of the press. Yet, according to McDonald “we could all imagine circumstances where we want journalists to break the law”. Privacy was, he argued “in danger of defeating the broader agenda of press freedom”. Supporting this view, the French press for example, were “not praiseworthy” in their supposed deference to their own public figures, failing in their pursuit of investigative journalism.

One of the more bizarre proposals of the evening came from Nick Davies, suggesting that because reconciliation between the free press and privacy was so problematic, there needed to be some sort of mechanism or process to deal with the question of public interest. Max Mosley seemed to prefer a judicial option, whereby a judge would make the decision pre-publication of an article. But Davies pondered as to whether there could there be some sort of 'tribunal of wise men or women', where the decision to authorise a journalistic investigation of an individual could be later made public, if say, the 'victim' were to sue. Picture, for a moment, the legitimacy of a tribunal made up of Dacre, Dominic Mohan, Richard Wallis, and Peter Hill – all editors of major national titles. I'm not suggesting any of them are fundamentally unethical people, but they're paid to do a job and ensure that their papers sell in an increasingly competitive and commercial environment.

With these sorts of pressures on them, there's no way that it a tribunal could be workable, let alone result in truly ethical decisions. Any members of such a panel would be the result of a judgement of someone, somewhere, who may or may not make a more valid editorial judgement than the individual who edits a newspaper. That's not to say that I agree with the casual fishing around for stories that some on the panel practised or supported (including ex-NotW features editor Paul McMullan) - I just don't believe that fundamentally speaking, journalism can allow for such cumbersome processes. What's really needed is a change of culture but that's a debate for another time.

We have a uniquely free press in this country, and some excellent, fearless journalists working on them. I'm not sure if we'll ever resolve that difficult question of public interest, or see the sorts of safeguards some people would like to see to protect the privacy of individuals, but that genuine spirit of inquiry for the public good is always worth fighting for. And the issue of phone-hacking isn't as black and white as it seems.

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