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
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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