By its nature, the press has created a succession of enemies. Originally, it battled against an overbearing, undemocratic state. Having won that conflict, it has since been locked into a struggle with the executive. Despite some questionable tactics down the years – especially those employed by newspaper proprietors pursuing their own economic and political agendas – the fight itself has been largely honourable.
The press has probed the darkest corners of governments, gradually making the executive more accountable. But there have been worrying signs in recent years that a large part of the press has stopped trying. Too many newspapers, diverted by a tame acceptance of the celebrity culture they have helped to spread, now find themselves fighting press freedom battles over largely trivial material. Yet they cannot retreat because there are real principles at stake.
Owners and editors have chased sales by purveying meretricious, gossipy stories sown with innuendo and often retail blatant falsehoods. Similarly, they revel in publishing so-called “candid” pictures, sneakily taken by paparazzi. No wonder the victims of these articles are starting to hit back, unsurprisingly using the heaviest weapons at their disposal. But if some of these actions were to succeed there would be a danger of them threatening essential freedoms necessary for the serious press to carry out its public-service functions.
Consider the latest crop of attempts to muzzle newspapers, some of which were understandable but most of which also constitute a potential erosion of press freedom.
1. The unacceptable legal gag. Michael Fawcett, erstwhile servant to the Prince of Wales, got wind of the Mail on Sunday’s intention to publish allegations about him, which he considered false and libellous. He applied for an injunction to prevent publication, which a judge granted.
2. The pre-emptive spin. Once the Guardian had won its case and the internet was humming with rumours about the nature of the allegations, Prince Charles’s private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, went public. In an unprecedented statement, he rubbished the allegations – without saying what they were – and the man who had made them. Papers poured scorn on his initiative, claiming he had stoked the flames of publicity rather than damping them down, but getting the denial in first worked: it is doubtful if many now believe the gossip they have heard – or seen on the net – about the (still unknown) allegations.
4. A strike against self-regulation? In December last year pictures appeared in the Sun and Daily Record of the film star Ewan McGregor with his five-year-old daughter on a beach in Mauritius. He went to law rather than taking his case to the Press Complaints Commission and last week won a significant action against the paparazzi agency responsible for taking and selling the pictures. The judge granted him an injunction preventing the French-based agency, Eliot Press, from publishing the pictures again and will decide later on the scale of damages for breach of confidence and compensation under the Data Protection Act. The agency did not contest the action, which really centres on an invasion of privacy, not so much that of McGregor as of his child.
5. The old pals’ act (failed). The minister for children, Margaret Hodge, has come under regular attack by papers that argue that she is unfit to hold her post because of her alleged failure to deal with child abuse while leader of Islington council for 10 years from 1982. When she discovered that BBC Radio 4’s Today programme planned to interview an abused victim, she wrote to the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, suggesting it would be deplorable to run an item “for the sake of sensationalism” and claiming that the interviewee was an “extremely disturbed person”. The BBC shopped Hodge by revealing her attempt to suppress the story and she was embarrassed into issuing an apology on Friday. The incident reflects well on the BBC and badly on Hodge. However innocent she is of the criticisms of her past decisions, this behind-the-scenes media manipulation was ill-conceived.
6. The veiled threat. Newspapers themselves can be guilty of concealing the truth, and the odd case of the Sun editors reminds us that the press can use underhand tactics to cover up its own indiscretions. It emerged last week that about five years ago money (which, it now appears, was about £80,000) was paid to a secretary who made allegations of sexual harassment against the then Sun editor, Stuart Higgins. When the Labour MP Clive Soley wrote to News International’s chairman, Les Hinton, about the case, he received a letter earlier this year from the current Sun editor, Rebekah Wade, which Soley believes was “a thinly disguised attempt to warn me off”.