BBC Radio Four’s The Media Show yesterday opened with a bit of a ding dong between John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute at Oxford and Anne McElvoy of the London Evening Standard. Lloyd opened with this:
John Lloyd – “Whether it was on a modest scale or an industrial scale what some journalists where doing was using their power and their money and the backing of their news organisation to substantially diminish people’s privacy and their civil and human right and that from people who’s job is, whose ideals are to uphold people’s rights [and] that they hold power to account is a terrible thing to be done. It is very, very serious.
McElvoy – Can I come back to John on that because I am not sure how far he wants to cast this privacy net, because if you are taking a newspaper which is investigating a large company which we suspect may be up to no good, and therefore uses private investigators to access phone calls or intercept email traffic, would you not think that was in the public interest. Would your rather sweeping defence of privacy not prevent that investigation going ahead.
Hewlett – There things to which there is a public interest defence and there are other things where there is strict liability, in the case of phone tapping, that’s illegal there is no public interest defence. Would you condone that in any circumstances?
McElvoy – [stutters] It’s not for me to condone things that are illegal. But I think if you go around and ask every newspaper editor if they had to honest and asked them whether they had turned a blind eye to the use of a private investigator whose methods included phone tapping I don’t think that an awful lot of them could say, depending on their budgets, could say no. That’s where I think there is a degree of hypocrisy here and we are just piling in on the tabloids because it is perfectly clear that it is easy to say there is no public interest. And there is a little bit of an edge there because we don’t like what they do. The moral problematic ones are when you are investigating something that does have a public interest, how far are you allowed to go.
In general, McElvoy warns that any move to introduce a privacy law would be resisted by the industry, tooth and nail. Lloyd makes the point that whilst newspapers are furtling around in the personal lives of politicians whilst serious investigation of what those politicians are actually up to substantially goes abegging…
Cooper suggests we are slowly moving towards a surveillance society, but via ‘big journalism’, not simply the state.
For her part, McElvoy answers a question that actually was not raised by Lloyd, and carefully slides away from the cultural and ethical question of what’s passing as routine inside the Murdoch papers (according to one former Sunday Times hack Slugger’s spoken to, the practice is, if anything, worse there than at the NOTW).
For her the least assertion of an individual’s right to privacy is likely to have the undesirable corollary of curtailing the freedoms of the media; even when it comes pretty close to breaching the democratic (albeit the vague unwritten and for many of us outside the machine, therefore unknowable) constitution of the UK.
And, she warns, it will be resisted robustly by the big media corporations.
And yet I wonder if the real problem here is political cowardice, rather than something requiring a actual change in the law. If ordinary politicians were to begin demonstrating (and even better, documenting) the kinds of intrusive surveillance they are often subjected to, the public might become a little less tolerant of the routine breach of human rights the current culture allows.
In the last week there have been all manner of papers and media institutions sagely shaking their heads saying that Mr Coulson’s big mistake is that he allowed himself to become the story.
The truth is that British mainstream media as an entirely unaccountable institution has become the story at the heart of Nick Davies’s investigation into the shenanigans in the Murdoch empire.
Its egregious and routine breaches of privacy, not to mention the close and cosy relationship it has developed, firstly with Tony Blair and latterly with David Cameron and George Osborne (who according to Stephen Glover are almost slavishly following Blair’s template) are worthy of further penetrative and sober investigation…
If as I have argued at Reuters Institute (where Lloyd is director), the blogging phenomenon has prospered through the huge gaps left by the conventional media, this may be an opportunity to press home the advantage bloggers have of being multiple and mostly unattached to larger interests, and take up a task so unsurreptitiously being dropped by all but one of Britian’s big national newspapers.
That means digging around in the background to find out just what’s really been going on…
Then maybe, just maybe, it can justifiably be said that citizen journalism has contributed something towards saving the ancient art of serious investigative journalism by filling the gaps that it either can’t or won’t do for itself…
Otherwise we are in danger of believing our own propaganda about holding big media and politics to account, without ever doing anything to actually prove it…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty