Friday, 8 July 2011

8 July 2011

So will you be buying a last copy of the News of the World on Sunday? A souvenir, to show to your grand-children: “This is what we used to call a newspaper”?

Maybe not. Maybe you’ve never bought a copy in your life, and have no intention of starting now. Maybe you’re delighted that a tabloid rag (your words, not mine) has finally been forced out of business.

Well, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m a journalist, and I can never celebrate the death of a newspaper. Yes, of course, the News of the World is guilty of some appalling errors – it has behaved shockingly and it has paid the price.

But, as we pointed out on last night’s programme, its record is not all bad. Some of its investigations really were in the public interest, and not just of interest to the public. (A fine distinction, I know, but a crucial one when we start discussing what is and is not a legitimate investigation.)

I’m a former Fleet Street news editor. (Or perhaps, in the style of Alcoholics Anonymous, I should say: “My name is Robin and I am a recovering Fleet Street news editor.”)

I never worked for a mass circulation Sunday paper (the one I worked for sold a tiny fraction of the copies the News of the World sells every week) – but I do know a little bit about the pressure to get stories.

So over the past few days, several people have asked me why on earth journalists would even think about trying to hack into the voicemail messages of bereaved military families or missing schoolgirls.

It’s quite a simple question to answer. What matters more than anything to reporters is that they get good stories printed in the paper – preferably at the top of the page, even better on the front page.

That makes their editors happy, because it makes the proprietor happy, because it means the paper will sell more copies. As the former information commissioner Richard Thomas put it in his prescient report “What price privacy?”, published more than five years ago: “Journalists have a voracious demand for personal information, especially at the popular end of the market. The more information they reveal about celebrities or anyone remotely in the public eye, the more newspapers they can sell.”

Do newspaper readers want to read about tragedy and heartbreak? Do they lap up heartrending tales of grief and suffering? You know the answer as well as I do.

(And if you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers. Biggest selling newspaper in the UK? News of the World.)

I sometimes liken journalists to undertakers. They both perform an essential task, but the detail of how they do it does not always make pleasant reading. If journalists break the law (and hacking into people’s voicemail messages is illegal, just as paying a police officer to disclose information is), then they face prosecution. And a jury will decide whether what they did was in the public interest.

There will now be enormous pressure on the press to clean up their act and strengthen the monitoring of their behaviour. It would not in the least surprise me if the Press Complaints Commission, which two years ago concluded that there was nothing much to worry about in the phone-hacking allegations (“the Commission could not help but conclude that the Guardian's stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given”) is now quietly put out of its misery.

In a statement on Wednesday, it admitted that “it can no longer stand by its 2009 report on phone hacking and the assertions made in it.” But if it is replaced, you’d better be prepared for many months of anguished debate about the correct balance to be struck between press freedom and the right to privacy.

Ed Miliband is making a speech today in which he calls for the Commission to be replaced by something with much sharper teeth. Trouble is it’s a very slippery slope from a system of regulation that includes the power to impose sanctions to a system of government licensing of newspapers.

The former chairman of the PCC, Sir Christpher Meyer, commented this morning: “If Ed Miliband wants a press watchdog to be able to take evidence on oath, and have police powers of investigation, that's state not self-regulation.”

If it comes to a choice between entrusting our freedoms to government or to newspapers, I am sometimes reminded of Thomas Jefferson: “If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Let the debate begin.

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