Inside Westminster

RSS

Without real contrition, press piety leaves me cold

The cross-party deal is a stitch-up but there is no moral authority on Fleet Street to resist it.

Billboards in Wapping advertise the Sun. Photograph: Getty Images.

Last year, when the Leveson inquiry was under way and journalists might have thought it prudent to behave with honour, something happened to friends of mine. It was what newspapers call a tragedy, although the word has been bled of any emotional potency by over-use. Two members of a family died together in an uncommon accident; one of them was a young child. One phrase swirled around my head at the time and I heard it repeated by bereaved friends and relations: "there are no words". How could the pain of such a loss be described?

The press found words. Two national newspapers – one tabloid, one broadsheet – and local papers wrote up the story. There were pictures too. There were pictures of a mother at the scene of an accident, not yet knowing if her child is alive or dead. There were pictures of the child taken from the parents’ Facebook page without permission. There were calls to the house and reporters loitering at the door.

There was no public interest in this family’s grief. They were not celebrities and did not have any significant connection with public life. I tried to imagine what justification an editor might come up with if challenged on such egregious breaches of the Press Complaints Commission code of practice - section three (privacy); section four (harassment); section five (intrusion into grief). The best I could imagine was some cockamamie extrapolation from the peculiar circumstances of the accident – a cautionary tale. But really there was no excuse. A complaint was made and the coverage tailed off, although the family dreaded seeing photographers and reporters at the funeral. I felt ashamed to be a journalist in those few days.

I sometimes consider the steps that are involved in an episode of that kind. Someone on the desk hears of a private agony and declares it a story. A reporter is despatched and agrees to capture the agony in 800 words. Someone points a camera at the agony. Someone approaches strangers for a quote because they know someone whose child is killed. Someone looks at the images that a mother has posted on Facebook when her child was alive and, knowing that the child is now dead, thinks "I will download these and put them in the newspaper." Someone adds a caption to the picture. Someone subs the story. Someone puts a headline on the story. Someone revises the pages for later editions. None of them says "stop this cruelty."

What sort of people are these? Is there another arena – war, perhaps – where the suppression of basic compassion is a requirement of the job? It is a sickness.

There are countless similar cases. Some were described in the Leveson hearings. Many more are unreported. Those are the cases worth remembering when people talk about "victims of the press". They are the cases that matter a whole lot more than the intrusion into Hugh Grant’s voicemail, incommoding though that must have been for Mr Grant.

This is a problem of culture, not law. Phone-hacking was illegal before Leveson and continues to be illegal. Its endemic use by Fleet Street hacks expresses a failure to apply the law (now applied with zeal) not a case for regulating the press. I don’t like the idea of politicians setting up bodies that can stipulate what constitutes virtuous conduct by journalists. I like still less the idea of a statute that empowers courts to impose "exemplary" – i.e. punitive – damages on a publication that chooses not to submit itself to the politicians’ agreed regulatory regime. Yet that is the arrangement that Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have concocted. It can’t be a glorious day for British democracy when the only thing three party leaders can agree on in private talks is that the press should be constrained.

I suspect the Royal Charter for press regulation will be a disaster. The circumstances of its genesis, the reluctance of the newspapers who are supposed to be governed by it, the lack of understanding among its architects of how the internet works – everything points to chaos and perverse unintended consequences. Maybe some conservative British newspapers will discover, on mounting their legal challenges to the new regime, an affection for the European Convention on Human Rights?

Maybe nothing much will change at all. Of the many things journalists have done in the past that I admire and consider worthwhile, I can’t see any that are now forbidden. Nor can I see much evidence that things journalists have done that I despise are made impossible. A Royal Charter won’t rehabilitate the conscience of people in whom empathy has been dulled.

There has been a heap of commentary in the last couple of days to the effect that an ancient liberty is lost. Quite a lot of it has come from newspapers that are guilty of the worst acts of intrusion. The press is a raucous, ribald, unruly beast, say its defenders. Mistakes have been made, offences committed but … But what?

The argument, if I’ve understood it correctly, is that a genre of wild irreverence is indigenous to British newspapers and therein lies their unique genius. If it weren’t for their capacity to offend and behave appallingly, they couldn’t reasonably be expected to hold the powerful to account. The grubby hacks who sometimes cross the threshold of decency and propriety are precious gadflies that prick the vanity of the establishment. Take away their licence to be bad and they cannot properly do good. It is a neat syllogism: a free press does wicked things; a press that is not free cannot perform its democratic functions properly, therefore, in order to perform its functions properly, the press must be partly wicked.

Really? What part of democracy is protected by stealing photographs of dead children from their parents? I know that the commentators, leader writers and headline composers who fulminate against Leveson are not all individually responsible for offences against privacy, decency, compassion and dignity. They are, no doubt, decent men and women (mostly men) of principle. But their crusading passion leaves me unmoved even when I agree with much of what they say. They speak on behalf of their institutions and the sickness in British journalism is institutional.

Where is the contrition? I hear only what might be called "bankers' apologies". That is the special kind of bogus sorry containing no remorse, only peevish irritation at having been caught doing something deemed unacceptable. The banker's apology is offered to people who - in the eyes of the one apologising - don’t really understand the issues, cannot appreciate the contribution that the accused industry makes to the greater good and yet must be placated because the diplomacy of the moment requires it. The banker's apology says: "I’m sorry you are so obtuse as to dislike me but really, you need me".

So I think I won’t elbow my way onto that crowded pulpit where so many of my fellow journalists compete in pious denunciation of Leveson and all his works. No, I don’t like the cross-party deal. I think some of the political responses have been noble but more have been vain and a few are sinister. Yes, I cherish Britain’s venerable but not impeccable history of free speech and fear that it is in some abstract way imperilled. But I also understand why some people might look at particular newspapers and, remembering things they have done, choose not to take moral lessons from their front pages. And when some papers address the nation to say: "we defend your rights," I can see how a reasonable rejoinder might be: "No, you defend only yourselves. We know what you really think of our rights. The evidence speaks for itself and you don’t give a shit."