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
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.