Editor at large of Spiked and author of There's No Such Thing As a Free Press

In defence of the tabloids: 'Every big story involves some underhand tactics'

Is it possible to have a simple definition of what is ethical journalism or what we mean by the public interest that can be made into general rules for the conduct of the press? The simple answer is: probably not, no.

We might just about all agree on an ethical bottom line. For example, that it is unethical to hack into the phone messages of a teenage girl who has been abducted and is feared dead. But that seems a pretty low moral base.

Those who commissioned or carried out the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone have not sought to defend it on ethical or any other grounds. The single person on the planet who has publicly defended it is the former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan. So the moral divide on that issue appears to be the Whole World versus one reviled hack. Not much of a basis for an all-encompassing ethical code, is it?

Go beyond that baseline in trying to detail an ethical code for the press, however, and things get slightly more complic-ated. Of course all organisations and institutions have devel-oped standards and rules. The press is no exception. Except that with journalism, existing codes of practice tend to be fairly careful in their prescriptions—for good reasons.

In the real world of the media, questions about the right reporting method to employ or the right story to publish do not fit neatly into tick-boxes. What is the best way to use press freedom is something best judged by journalists and their audience in response to the questions of the day. It is often not an issue that can be decided in advance according to a pre-determined checklist.

Many questions of how to behave in the circumstances cannot easily be answered by reference to a code of pure press ethics apparently drafted on a cloud, floating far above the grubby streets below.

For example, everybody agrees that phone-hacking is evil and that using private detectives to dig dirt is inexcusable. Or perhaps not. We now know that not only the lowly tabloid News of the World used phone-hacking methods to pursue stories when it chose to. Even a top reporter at the high-minded Guardian has admitted to doing the same and hacking a target’s phone messages, in pursuit of what he saw as the public interest —”for ethical reasons, not tittle-tattle”.2 Apparently evil can become ethical in the right circumstances.

Paul McMullan

It has also been admitted that News Corp was not the only large media institution to employ dubious private detectives to help in its investigations. No less an august body than the BBC has admitted doing the same thing on 230 occasions, in pursuit of what its Director-General described as “the public interest”, of course. The inexcusable can apparently be excused by evoking the public interest.

It is important to have principles, and we all hope that our work is guided by our own. In practice those principles have to exist alongside the recognition that there is no substitute for judgement calls. The question of whether splashing a sensational story or using a questionable reporting tactic is justified can only be decided in the particular context where the question arises.

Those grappling with the problem of how to impose black-and-white rules about what journalists can and cannot do are playing with fire.

In a major lecture on the future of the press, the ethics expert Professor Onora O’Neill has proposed that the law should be able to regulate, not the content of the press, but the process and methods it uses to obtain its stories, effectively outlawing a list of investigative practices.

The Leveson Inquiry made clear that it would scrutinise not only phone-hacking but also other illegal and “unethical” reporting methods, including subterfuge, “blagging” and the payment of witnesses.

The truth is, however, that any ethical code or law which sought to rule out in advance such underhand and questionable methods would almost certainly have made it impossible to pursue and publish some of the most famous news stories and scandals of the past two centuries.

Take, for example, the Victorian newspaper exposé which helped press the UK parliament to pass a law raising the age of consent to 16 and introducing new measures against child prostitution.

In 1885 W.T. Stead, the sensationalist editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, launched an investigation into child prostit-ution in London with the support of the Social Purity Move-ment.

He published a dramatic series of articles, entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, which caused a national scandal and drove parliament to action. WH Smith refused to have the “obscene” paper on its news-stands, though Salvation Army members and other volunteers helped to sell out the issues.

The Pall Mall Gazette’s style was a mixture of puffed-up moralism with puerile titillation, of eager voyeurism presented as horrified disgust, of a type we have become familiar with in the modern media. The articles were advertised thus: “All those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who would prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary inno-cence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days.”

They were published under such salacious headings as “The Violation of Virgins”, “Confessions of a Brothel-keeper”, and, most shockingly, “A Girl of 13 Bought for £5”.

To obtain that last story, Stead employed somewhat unconventional and entirely illegal journalistic methods. He posed as a “procurer” and arranged personally to buy a 13-year-old virgin called Eliza Armstrong for £5 from her alcoholic mother, with the apparent intention to ship the girl to the Continent where she was to be exploited as a prostitute. (Victorian social reformers seemed convinced that, while British girls might be abducted, child prostitution was something which only really went on among filthy foreigners abroad.)

Amid the political uproar that followed, Stead and his accomplices were charged with abduction and procurement—a case prosecuted by the Attorney General himself—and he was sentenced to three months in jail.

Although he is now lauded by liberal commentators as a pioneering hero of investigative journalism—one now claims that those who have investigated the heinous crime of phone-hacking have “followed in Stead’s footsteps”—it seems unlikely that Stead himself or his methods would have measured up too well to the standards of “ethical journalism” that many now want written in stone if not law.

As well as being a Victorian moral crusader of a sort that does not go down well in media circles—a “Puritan chock-full of guile” in the words of one contemporary socialist—Stead’s style of journalism was often accused of being sensationalist, prurient and even obscene; or, as some might say these days, “tabloid”.

His investigation into child prostitution involved cutting cor-ners, breaking laws and fudging facts in a way that might not pass the purity tests of today’s media moralists. He was also, like some other famous Victorians, a crank who believed in ghosts and the occult and published spiritualist newspapers which saw him ridiculed as a madman in the years before his fittingly dramatic death aboard the Titanic in 1912. Yet in thecircumstances of the time his decision to flout the law and standards of respectable society won widespread support.

There are many other tales of famous investigations whose methods might fall foul of the rules and conventions now being insisted upon by influential voices.

Take the Thalidomide scandal, concerning a drug given to pregnant women that caused serious deformities in some children (it had been tested on animals, but not pregnant animals).

In the early 1970s, the Sunday Times fought a long journalistic and legal battle to expose the full truth and demand justice for the thalidomide children. A decisive factor was the large sum of money that the paper’s editor, Harold Evans, paid an informant for confidential documentary dirt on the drug company, Distillers.

Even at the time such deals were sneered at as “chequebook journalism”, and the struggle to publish the leaked information went to the highest courts in the UK and Europe. Today, as Times journalist Camilla Cavendish has observed, “Sir Harry would have to be extra brave to pay his whistleblower £8,000 to get files from Distillers”, since “the Bribery Act 2010 makes it illegal to pay for information that could reveal corruption.

Had it come into force two years earlier, it would have prevented The Daily Telegraph from paying for the information that exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal”. That Act was passed into law even before the furore about the evils of newspapers bribing officials and paying for stories began. What price the Thalidomide exposé today?

Every big story from Watergate to Squidgygate, and just about every other scandal lumbered with the “gate” suffix, generally involves some level of underhand antics by the reporter. After all, these investigative journalists are trying to reveal information that somebody, somewhere (often some-where high up) wants to keep secret.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal. Pic: Reuters

Before getting too high on Lord Justice Leveson’s horse about the offences of “unethical” reporting, it is worth recalling the words of William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, a legendary press baron who was the model for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. “News”, declared Hearst, “is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising”.

That is a distinction which might seem even more important to bear in mind today, when so much of the celebrity-soaked, PR-driven media looks like advertising in disguise.

The pressurised search to unearth news that “somebody doesn’t want printed”, and to do so yesterday, can lead editors and journalists to make errors and unwise judgement calls. That does not alter the fact that there will always be circumstances where the story justifies unconventional reporting measures and pushing the “ethical” envelope.

Tabloids, quality newspapers and broadcasters can all get carried away in the zealous pursuit of a story that suits their own agenda. Such mistakes and misjudgements ought to be exposed, but not offered as evidence that future reporting should be more regimented or restrained on ethical grounds. After all, it could happen to anybody. The News of the World obviously overstepped every mark in the book with the tactics it used to pursue some stories, most infamously by hacking crime victims’ phone messages. But what about the methods certain other publications and broadcasters employed in pursuing the phone-hacking story itself?

By the start of 2012, for example, the Guardian had published no fewer than 40 corrections, retractions and apologies in relation to stories it had run about the Murdoch press and the phone-hacking scandal. So over-eager was that noble paper to pursue its campaign that it seemed as willing as celebrity gossip-mongers to rush into print and online with unsubstan-tiated allegations, rumour and, as they might have it, “tittle-tattle”.

The corrections the Guardian had to publish included: the withdrawal of the false claim that Murdoch papers had hacked the medical records of former prime minister Gordon Brown’s family; an apology for its false front-page claim that the Murdoch-owned Sun had stalked a female lawyer from the Leveson Inquiry (which non-existent offence the excited writer had likened to the tabloid “casually defecating on his lordship’s desk while doing a thumbs-up sign”); and the withdrawal of a report, published in language no tabloid would use without the obligatory asterisks, which falsely claimed that, before the singer Charlotte Church’s sixteenth birthday, the Sun “began a public countdown to the day on which she could be legally fucked”. (That unsubstantiated story was based on evidence that Church herself gave at the Leveson Inquiry which, as with much of the celebrity gossip offered there, the lawyers and writers present seemed to accept as good coin without checking their facts.)

The most dramatic mistake was the Guardian’s claims that the News of the World had not only hacked the missing Milly Dowler’s phone in 2001 but had deleted key messages from her voicemail, which gave the Dowler family false hope that she was alive. It was these dramatic revelations that led directly to Rupert Murdoch closing down the News of the World and David Cameron setting up the Leveson Inquiry.

A few months later it became known that the story was not all that it seemed; there was no evidence that the paper had deleted those messages. Nobody, however, suggested that the Inquiry should be closed down and the NotW reopened. As my colleague Brendan O’Neill pointed out when exposing these trends, the liberal media appeared to be “using tabloid tactics to slay the tabloids”, so that “Leveson and its cheerleaders are starting to look about as reliable as the Sunday Sport”.9

So much for “ethical, public-interest journalism”. If they applied the strict journalistic codes they advocate, it seems that some of the media reformers might have to have themselves struck off.

This is an extract from There is No Such Thing As a Free Press by Mick Hume, published by Import Academic, price £8.95.

 

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