Anarchy in the UK

Journalism: truth or dare?

Ian Hargreaves <em>Oxford University Press, 294pp, £12.99</em>


It was a character in one of Tom Stoppard's plays who commented that he was all in favour of the freedom of the press, it was just the newspapers he couldn't stand. All attempts to improve the press - to reduce its lies, distortions and invasions of privacy either through a professional code of self-regulation or through some form of statutory intervention - come up against this difficulty: that much as we distrust journalists, we cannot trust anybody to regulate them.

Least of all journalists themselves. The Press Complaints Commission, where tabloid editors sit in judgement on each other's misdemeanours, is about as laughable as Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party forming a committee on human rights - except that the commission, even after its preposterous deliberations, doesn't pull out fingernails or even give them more than the lightest tap. But I am not sure that I would prefer the press to be regulated by the US Committee of Concerned Journalists, formed in 1997, and quoted here by Ian Hargreaves. It believes that journalism is "a discipline of verification" and demands that the news be kept "comprehensive and proportional". It omits to mention that newspapers need to entertain and stimulate - though it concedes that they should be "interesting and relevant". On this evidence, high-minded journalists would make the worst regulators of the lot.

US and Continental newspapers are often held up as good examples to frivolous and sensationalist Brits. Yet the truth is that American papers in particular are monumentally boring, loftily distant from their readers and inclined, at times of what is perceived as national peril, to stifle dissent. The humourless French, German and Italian papers, meantime, allow their politicians to get away with levels of corruption and hypocrisy that would be unthinkable in Britain. American and Continental papers are not significantly more regulated than ours are (in fact, somewhat less so, given their less draconian libel laws); they simply suffer from their journalists' almost unanimous belief that they are engaged in some serious social and political mission.

This is the nub of the matter. We should take the freedom of the press seriously but nobody, particularly journalists, should take journalism too seriously. The US culture is a curious one: it will defend to the death your right to say what you like (a freedom protected by the constitution); but it also insists that, if you hold a "responsible" position, such as a regular column on a newspaper or a high profile on network television, you should not be "irresponsible". This explains why the US media is always in thrall to various forms of conformity, and why it rarely attempts anything beyond the most bland, non-political humour. The US will never put you in jail or even take you to court for expressing an unacceptable opinion, but it is quite likely to freeze you out of remunerative employment.

In Britain, by contrast, the culture celebrates journalistic anarchy and irresponsibility, as in the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Michael Frayn and in Humbert Wolfe's little rhyme ("You cannot hope/to bribe or twist,/thank God! the/British journalist./But, seeing what/the man will do/unbribed, there's/no occasion to"). We expect journalists to be roguish and disreputable outsiders, sometimes flouting the rules of taste, decency and even-handedness, and therein lies the vitality and interest of our newspapers. There is nothing to stop individual journalists behaving with as much integrity and seriousness as they wish; there will not be as many jobs (particularly lucrative ones) open to them, but actresses who decline to take off their clothes have the same sort of problem.

You will by now understand that I prefer the British press, with all its faults, to what I know of the press in other countries. I suspect that, almost despite himself, Ian Hargreaves does, too. You cannot, on the face of it, get much more high-minded than Hargreaves, my predecessor as New Statesman editor and later, as chairman of this company, my boss for about 18 months; plus executive positions at the Financial Times and the BBC, an editorship of the Independent that saw the paper go even further up- market (and successfully so) than And- reas Whittam Smith had positioned it, and a professorship of journalism.

Yet Hargreaves, in this absorbing and wide-ranging book (he embraces PR, radio, television and the net, as well as newspapers), points out that the tabloids, for all their vulgarity and instrusiveness, admit to the public arena the voices and opinions of large numbers of people who were once excluded. He reminds us that the mainstream American press, so scrupulous in its approach to politicians' private lives, was bounced into writing about Monica Lewinsky by the Drudge Report on the internet. Here, he highlights the real danger: that a more "responsible" press colludes in suppressing information (as British newspapers routinely did until quite recently and as many people accuse them of still doing in certain respects) and therefore loses public trust more comprehensively than an "irresponsible" press.

An unregulated and irresponsible press in which the likes of the Sun and the Mail are free to lie and distort is, to adapt what Churchill once said of democracy, the worst thing imaginable except for any other sort of press that has ever been tried. The problem with leaving everything to the market is that it gives the rich a bigger voice than the poor. But that is a more general social problem, not peculiar to the media industry, and Hargreaves rightly argues that the best safeguard is diversity - not just in the styles and political positions of media outlets, but also in their forms of ownership and control. The equity-based company, the non-profit trust, the individual proprietor, the public corporation, the employees' co-operative all have their different merits and drawbacks in the media, writes Hargreaves, and it would be wrong to regard any of them as an infallible model.

Only in one respect might I reluctantly accept a limited degree of statutory regulation and, again, Hargreaves seems to agree. This is to ensure that journalism is open to scrutiny and challenge. The mass-circulation tabloids particularly prefer not to admit error or to allow those criticised to answer back. They may find that a requirement to do so is the price of preserving their most precious contributions to our society: their irresponsibility and their capacity to cause outrage.