YOU do not have to be a professor of mass communication and
media studies to know the difference in newspaper terms between
what is in the public interest, and what interests the public.
Probably most of us have flicked surreptitiously through to page
five of, let us say, the Daily Mail, to get more details
on that celebrity story trailed tantalisingly in 36-point bold type
on its front page. Editors know this. And we (or most of us) fall
for it every time.
Knowing, too, that their job is to
inform and entertain, Fleet Street's finest provide their readers
with a mix of the important and the merely interesting, which, for
reasons best known to themselves, some people, somewhere, would
rather you did not read.
Despite its many excesses in this
regard, however, the British press has a solid record as a
responsible force for holding wrongdoers to account. Let us not
forget, for example, that, for all its faults, the News of the
World was once feared by hypocritical politicians and corrupt
businessmen, who doubtless sleep a little easier now that the paper
is no more.
What did for the News of the
World was not illegal behaviour in itself. After all, an
investigative journalist must, on occasions, use "ratlike cunning
and a plausible manner" (Nicholas Tomalin) to obtain information
not willingly disclosed by someone suspected of malfeasance. No,
what banged it to rights was the routine use of indiscriminate
phone-tapping in the pursuit of conveyor-belt stories, one of
which, far from interesting the public, revolted it.
Compare and contrast with the
parliamentary expenses scandal. What came to light did so after the
(equally illegal) theft from the House of Commons of an uncensored
CD, on which were inscribed the details of every MP's claim for
everything from household groceries to mortgages. Rather than face
charges of receiving stolen goods, The Daily
Telegraph claimed a clear public interest, and was rightly
praised to the rafters.
The point - a simple one, but
overlooked in the current blizzard of self-righteousness - is that
phone-hacking is against the law. Paying police officers and public
officials for information (bribing, to you and me) is, likewise, a
criminal offence. Those who do not have an alibi can expect fines,
or a period of enforced idleness at Her Majesty's pleasure, while
those who do may expect the plaudits of a grateful nation.
Before framing unnecessary new
legislation to restrict press freedom, it is to be hoped that Lord
Justice Leveson will, in his forthcoming report, be suitably
troubled by the case this week of Kostas Vaxevanis, the Greek
magazine editor who faces two years in prison for publishing the
names of more than 2000 individuals who are alleged to be avoiding
tax through an elaborate network of undisclosed Swiss bank
At a time of unprecedented austerity,
the Greek public may rightly expect the rich and powerful to share
some of the country's pain, or, at the very least, to be
transparent in their financial affairs. Instead - and with the
connivance of the Greek Ministry of Finance, which has had the
names for more than a year without taking action - Mr Vaxevanis has
been accused of violating the country's privacy laws, and faces a
In the days of the Cold War, we
shuddered at the thought of newspapers under state control, and
were heartened only by the knowledge that it could never happen
here. True, it has not happened yet, but it is a timely moment for
all of us to ask exactly whose interests would be served by more
government interference into the workings of the Fourth Estate.
Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme, and
other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.