Who cares about Rebekah Brooks when we can talk about Andrew Marr?

The News International chief is accused of lying to parliament – but the press just cares about some

So we can finally talk about Andrew Marr. Hooray for us. What a victory for democracy and freedom of speech that we can write without fear about someone having sex with someone else. High-fives all round.

Meanwhile, Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, has been accused of lying to parliament. It's a story that slipped under the radar while the hyenas descended on the corpse of Andrew Marr's superinjunction, but it happened all the same: the MP Chris Bryant used parliamentary privilege to accuse Brooks of misleading the House.

He said: "Rebekah Brooks, who on March 11 2003 said she had paid police officers for information, wrote to the select committee a couple of weeks ago to say what she really meant was that other newspapers had done so. That is a blatant lie. This House should no longer put up with being lied to."

That is all very well for Bryant to say. But how can he expect anyone to be interested in such a story? Accusing a hugely powerful chief executive of a multimillion-pound corporation of lying to parliament is one thing; but did they lie to their spouse? If not, how can anyone even be bothered to fire up a laptop to write about it?

We're not interested in tales of lies to parliament; we want to know about celebrities and what they do with their genitalia. If the papers simply came out with this truth and admitted it, then I don't think there would be a problem.

"Look," they could say. "You know and I know that we're not really holding the rich and powerful to account. You just want to know which people are having a bit on the side with someone else. So here it is, not in any public interest, but simply to satisfy your craving for titbits about famous people's infidelities, because it shines a little glow of prurient happiness in your otherwise worthless little lives."

But no. We have to go through the pantomime of pretending that the reason everyone is fighting these superinjunctions is in the brave battle for truth against those naughty folk who've been caught with their pants down and are using their children as a human shield to protect their public profiles.

Even if that were true, that's not why it's happening. It's happening because celebrity-shagging flogs papers and people like to read about it – more than they like to read about evidence given to select committees, for example.

The rich and powerful are trying to use their wealth to pay for gags, the newspapers bleat. If only we could tell you about sex in hotel rooms, they whine. If only we could reveal details about who did what with whom and when, they grumble, then we could really hold these people to account.

Meanwhile, the rich, and really powerful, like Rebekah Brooks, just carry on, without fear of scrutiny from a large section of the press.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder