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To see ourselves as others see us

2012 March 16
by Paul Vallely

To see ourselves as others see us.  This week I went to a private gathering of lawyers to discuss privacy, the press and other issues central to the Leveson inquiry which, one barrister present assured me, even five months in, is not even halfway done yet. Two interesting things happened. It forced me to lift my head from scrutinising the day-to-day revelations of the inquiry to consider the strategic implications of all the jigsaw pieces Leveson is laying out. And I discovered you never really know exactly what you think until you are cross-examined.
Will the phone hacking revelations destroy good old fashioned red-top investigative journalism, they began by asking me. Many might find it hard to recall, paddling around in the salacious sewage that filled the News of the World, that it also occasionally did stories which were distinctly in the public interest, such as its exposure of how corruption in cricketing lay at the heart of an international betting scandal.
What that reminds us is that we need a different polarity to the one with which the lawyers began. Their starting point was that certain clandestine techniques – like phone-hacking, bribery, or “blagging” confidential information from hospitals or banjks – were always illicit and unacceptable.

That was the wrong place to start I suggested. All those illegal techniques could be morally acceptable in pursuit of the genuine public interest. Stealing medical records might be appropriate if there were indications that, say, a prime minister was disguising a medical condition which impaired his ability to govern. So might hacking the private banks accounts of a company boss suspected of siphoning off his employees pension contributions. Paying a bribe, as the Telegraph did to obtain the data on MPs fiddling their expenses, was a small ill for a greater good. Listening to the private phone messages of detective in a murder case might be right if he was colluding in a cover-up.
The proper argument is not about methods but context. What Leveson should eventually focus on is a more precise definition of the public interest. The lawyers argued that this would mean anything could be published and only scrutinised by the courts afterwards. But anyone who works in a newspaper office knows that much of what journalists do is constrained by their in-house lawyers’ comprehensive knowledge of legal precedents and what the courts have, and have not, allowed in the past. The range of cases which would end up in court would, I suspect, be a fairly narrow one.

Press freedom is not indivisible, despite what the defenders of tabloid sleaze suggest when they say bad journalism could not be outlawed without endangering good journalism. Better regulation is entirely possible using the authority of the state at arms length, as is done in other areas where independence is essential – like the appointment of judges. Self-regulation can have teeth, as doctors, dentists, jockeys and even footballers know.
Greater statutory restraints are entirely possible in protecting, say, the privacy of children under the age of 18.  All teenagers make mistakes and the children of famous parents should be allowed to make them in private.
More tricky, I suggested, was injecting a sense of proportion into the media which tends to work on waves on momentum which can mount to hysteria – as happened during the MPs’ expenses story when a blood-lust developed to nail individuals for minor infractions over bath plugs and the like.
In return for all that, my learned friends offered some penetrating inside insights into the crumbling of the Murdoch empire. But in keeping with another great journalistic tradition, serialisation, I shall keep those for another day.

Church Times

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