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State control may not be the answer

by
09 November 2012

In press regulation, the many may be penalised for the sins of the few, says Trevor Barnes

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 accounts.

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 prison sentence.

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.

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