Morality and the press

Ex-Sun editor says he regrets exposés. But will newspapers’ amoral culture ever change?

Last night I went to hear David Yelland, the former Sun editor, give a talk at Quintessentially Soho, a temporary private members' club that raises money for the House of St Barnabas homeless charity.

Yelland was talking about his novel, The Truth About Leo, and the event was in aid of another charity, The Place2be, a schools-based counselling service. He spoke openly, as he has before, about his alcoholism and how it led him to do all sorts of things he now regrets, not only in his personal life, but also at the Sun, where he once turned up to edit the paper so drunk that he failed to realise he was wearing two shirts and two ties on top of each other.

More important than any sartorial embarrassment, however, was his change of heart over the kind of stories the paper used to run -- the kiss'n'tells and suchlike exposés of matters people in the public eye might prefer to keep to themselves. He reinforced the point when discussing his decision to reveal his alcoholism, saying that "some people in public life keep their recovery private, and that's absolutely quite right, too".

He didn't go as far as calling for any kind of privacy law, but clearly he now feels it is wrong for newspapers to maintain their circulation through revelations that can ruin lives.

This is certainly to be welcomed. But I wonder if it is likely to have any effect at all on his former colleagues.

I had a word with Yelland afterwards and put it to him that while tolerance of drinking has declined markedly in newspapers over the past 20 years -- during the daytime, at least -- the moral standards that many in journalism check in at the door to the newsroom -- indeed, are often required to do so -- are still notable by their absence.

Fair's the name of the game

The question "How would I feel if I were the subject of this story?" is one that is never asked when the article concerns anything most people would regard as being private. Instead, the line is taken that anyone vaguely famous has signed up to some implicit bargain whereby the price of their fame is that any aspect of their life is "fair game".

A passing reference by a "celebrity" to a loved one in an interview may seem harmless; in fact, it can, and will, be used in future to justify muckraking intrusion, on the grounds that the subject was happy to talk about their private life when it helped "promote" their career. (In this regard, I once advised an actress friend who was about to be interviewed by the Times not to mention anything at all about her home life. "Thanks very much," the interviewer said to me sarcastically afterwards.)

Any iota of fellow-feeling has to be excised. Journalists who write such stories simply have to view their subjects as being no more human than a cat or a pet hamster (actually, more consideration would be paid to a pet).

This applies not just to the red-top papers. The more "high-minded" papers have an appetite for scandal, too; they just prefer someone else to do the dirty work of exposing the story, which they regretfully follow them up, as by then (alas) the news is "out there".

All this may seem appalling, but the culture that backs up the setting aside of scruples is insidious and widespread. I can still remember the glee with which one former broadsheet editor wrote a headline about a divorce story. "Welcome to the XXX Show: I've left my wife" (I'm not going to repeat the programme's title as I don't want to indicate the person's identity).

Yelland is correct to say that such are stories are wrong and that people should have the right to keep their private lives to themselves. They don't have any cast-iron, effective legal right, however, and as this post by Roy Greenslade shows, the Press Complaints Commission cannot be relied on to be an effective guardian, either.

There has been much discussion over the past year or so of libel reform and of how the media ought to be able to report more. But unless I have missed it, there has been little examination of what is and is not moral to report.

Perhaps there should be more. And after his brave admissions about his alcoholism, perhaps Yelland is the man to make the case for a change in culture in journalism. For it is there that the change has to come if there is to remain anything noble about the principle of freedom of the press.

If it doesn't, then I, for one, will happily vote for a privacy law.

 

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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