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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.