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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.