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.

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."

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

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war