BEFORE the Calcutt report into press self-regulation was even published, the press was in a state of hysteria about It. “Big brother bullies want to gag our free press”, snivelled The Star, “Whatever jargon the establishment uses to try and justify this, it means one thing in plain English — censorship. It’s an ugly word in a democracy.”
The Sun, too, went into a frenzy of noble righteousness: “A free and unshackled press is an essential branch of liberty,” said a front-page editorial, “but our lords and so-called masters want to take an axe to it. In the name of YOUR freedom, they plan ominous legal curbs on newspapers. THEY will fine and harass us. THEY will censor us and gag us. THEY will decide what we can print and what you have the right to know.”
The editor of The Sun, cocky and arrogant as ever, declared that he would defy any privacy law and was prepared to go to jail as a consequence. “We won’t pretend we savour the prospect of a month in the Scrubs. But we’ll damned well serve our time with our heads held high,” he said rather unconvincingly.
After the report was published, they went totally haywire. They misrepresented its findings in the same way that they misrepresent everything else they don’t like. Sensible debate seemed impossible.
Sir David Calcuttt had anticipated chose objections: “I don’t doubt that recommendations will be met by claims that they will result in censorship and gagging of the press, that they will prevent responsible investigative journalism and that they would only serve as a shield for the wicked,” but he goes on to say that it is apparent that the press is quite incapable of regulating itself and that his aim is to help the press “to operate freely and responsibly and give it the backing that is needed in a fiercely competitive market, to resist the wildest excesses.”
He is scathing about the ineffectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission: “It is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry.”
Calcutt recommends the setting up of a statutory tribunal which would draw up a code of practice and have legal powers to enforce it. Undoubtedly this code of practice would have included sexual orientation in its clause about discrimination — and would at least have provided gay people with some form of redress. Unfortunately, the tribunal idea has been rejected by the Government as “dangerous”.
Other recommendations in relation to eavesdropping, illicitly recorded conversations and photographing people on private property and a right to sue newspapers over invasions of privacy are still being considered. Some of these proposals would protect individual gay people, but they would not shield our community from the barrage of anti-gay propaganda that issues daily from the tabloids,
It Is. I agree, potentially dangerous to be talking about any limitation on the freedom of the press, but Calcutt is convinced that none of his proposals would fetter the papers in their justifiable investigations into corruption or criminal activity. And let’s not forget that it was the slimy. irresponsible tabloids that created this threat of “censorship” in the first place They have suddenly developed amnesia about all the cruelty, the humiliation and the pain they have inflicted on innocent people over the years.
As a smokescreen they try to convince us that they have been scandalously “used” by the Royal Family, but what they forget to tell us is that they have made a fortune, and temporarily arrested their falling circulation, by the use of these stories from supposedly manipulative Royals. They say that if privacy restrictions had been in effect, they would have been unable to tell you about the David Mellor affair or the Paddy Ashdown affair. They would have been unable to bring you the details of Charles and Di’s marriage break-up or the toe-sucking activities of Fergie.
But I have to ask if democracy would have been damaged if we had not known that David Mellor liked to make love in a football strip, or that the Prince and Princess of Wales liked to make smutty and juvenile telephone calls to their respective sweethearts?
It could be argued that the break-up of the marriage of the heir to the throne is of public interest, but are all the other salacious and personally humiliating details necessary? In the case of Paddy Ashdown, the country as a whole let The Sun know that their estimation of Mr Ashdown had not been lessened by the knowledge that he had an affair with his secretary; it was entirely his — and his family’s — business. At the time there was a feeling in the air that The Sun had made us all into sordid voyeurs, peeping through the bedroom keyhole. Mr Ashdown resumed his career, and one is tempted to ask how exactly this crude attempt at character assassination (immediately prior to an election) served the democracy of which the press are suddenly so protective.
Ah yes, goes the self-serving arguments of those in the press who make a fat living from tittle-tattle, but if public figures seek publicity to further their careers, they can’t be selective about it. They can’t turn the spotlight off when they feel like it.
But this doubting Thomas has to ask: why not? Just because a person seeks public office, it does not mean that he or she is inviting the nation to become spectators at their bedside (Madonna, of course, is an exception) Why shouldn’t some areas of private life be sacrosanct? Why should (t not be permissible for those who are in the public eye to have some degree of privacy? Why shouldn’t they be able to bathe nude in their own swimming pool without the accompaniment of prying telephoto lenses? Why shouldn’t they be able to hire a rent boy or girl in their off-duty hours, safe in the knowledge that if he or she decides to blab the details, the newspapers aren’t going to splash it on the front page?
Calcutt puts it this way: “I conclude that while, prima face. everyone is entitled to protection of their privacy, those persons discharging public functions must be prepared to expect the level of privacy to be reduced to the extent, but only to the extent, that it is necessary for the public to be informed about matters directly affecting the discharge of their public functions.”
Calcutt recommends that if legislation is enacted there should be a defence of “public interest”. Defences would include “preventing, detecting or exposing the commission of a crime or other seriously anti-social behaviour: or for the purpose of preventing the public being misled by some public statement or action of the individual concerned; or for the purpose of informing the public about matters directly affecting the discharge of any public function of the individual concerned”.
A newspaper that had traduced the privacy of an individual, and was subsequently prosecuted, need not fear injustice if their actions were in the pursuit of genuine investigative journalism and not just titillating copy. Take the case of Frank Bough, for instance. The poor man, by virtue of frequent TV appearances as an announcer, was deemed worthy of having his predilection for SM sex made subject to a front-page expose in The News of the World, not once, but twice. What had he done to deserve such humiliation? What public interest had been served by his being brought low in such a callous way?
We turn to Patsy Chapman, editor of The News of the World, for an explanation. “Did it really harm him?” she asks in an interview with The Guardian (January 13th). “He’s back on television now. If it did harm him, then tough titty.” Tough titty indeed for Frank, and maybe tough titty for Patsy if this is the contemptuous manner in which she treats her victims.
The press has been warned often enough about its nasty ways. David Mellor, when he was Heritage Secretary, fatefully told them that they were “drinking in the last-chance saloon”. Within weeks, full particulars of his sexual peccadillos were on the front page of The Sun and every other tabloid They did not cease their pursuit until he had resigned from the cabinet. Revenge may be sweet, but it also tends to be self-defeating, as newspapers might well find out.
I don’t care much about the Royal Family and politicians, although I do believe that there should be a limit to what the press can do to them in the way of personal humiliation. What I do care about are the thousands of other lesser mortals who have been through the tabloid scandal mill. Why did they think it necessary to “out” Gorden Kaye. star of the ‘Alio. ‘Alio series? Why should they follow Coronation Street’s Roy Barraclough to his holiday destination, simply to pose the question “Are you gay?” and then print his affirmative reply as a front-page lead? What business is this of anyone else’s? Neither man had committed any crime, neither was a threat to the safety of the nation.
What about Canon Brian Brindley, who was set up some time ago by a man posing as a “friend and admirer”, who was. in fact, a NoW journalist with a tape recorder hidden in his coat. The poor priest was plied with drink at a dinner party and then encouraged to talk about his sexual fantasies which, as it happened, concerned other men. From then on, this blameless man became — to the NoW — ”The kinky Canon”, “the camp Canon” and “vile Brindley”. Brindley was ruined and had to resign from his post as business manager of the General Synod. His Bishop said at the time: “That a journalist should go into the Canon’s home with a concealed tape recorder, cajoling him into fantasising about his private life is deplorable. More deplorable is the fact that a national newspaper should print a story based on material obtained in such a deceitful manner.”
The News of the World replied to the criticism by printing all the accusations again, with embellishments. Tough titty, it seems for Canon Brindley. too. If Calcutt’s report is implemented, such tactics would be outlawed unless it can be proved that there is a definite “public interest”.
However, the proposed maximum fine of £5,000 for breaking this law seems small, considering that a juicy photo taken by the paparazzi can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds on the open market. Calcutt acknowledges that recourse to the present libel laws is only for the rich. After a stream of successful libel actions against newspapers, the number of reckless accusations and spiteful “exposes” has decreased.
It’s highly unlikely, for instance, that there will be a repeat of the Elton John farrago. You will remember that in 1987, The Sun made seriously damaging accusations about Mr John’s gay private life. It was a pack of lies. When Mr John threatened libel action. The Sun added more lies to the catalogue It was a serious mistake which taught The Sun an expensive lesson — it was obliged to pay Elton John £1 million and apologise in grovelling fashion on the front page. Not many of us have Elton John’s financial resources and so it is important that there should be something just as effective for the man in the street.
Another canard that is being peddled by the papers is that privacy laws in other countries don’t work. We are told that in France, where a privacy law has been in effect since 1970, the press is gagged and unable to criticise its politicians. Most people in this country don’t read French newspapers and so have to take such statements on trust.
The truth is different. Although French tabloids might be frustrated that they cannot copy their British counterparts’ penchant for mocking people’s private lives (Paris Match, for instance, was fined £84.000 for printing the Fergie photos), there is nothing to stop them exposing corruption or crime, which they frequently do.