Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paul Dacre: Lover or a Fighter? How Will We Ever Know?

Private faces in public places
are wiser and nicer
than public faces in private places
W.H Auden

..the more editors think they are public figures and the more they become speaking heads on TV chat shows the more their newspapers decline and they do not last very long in their jobs. That is my experience. My job is to edit my newspaper, to have a relationship with my readers, to reflect my readers' views and to defend their interest. It is not to offer myself up to you or television or radio interviewers.

Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence Paul Dacre's response to Q147, 25 March 2004. [Retrieved on 25 May 2007]. From Wikipedia.

So, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre gives a speech in which he attacks what he calls the "wretched" Human Rights Act - which is in effect an "imposed" privacy law. He singles out one man, Mr Justice Eady, for his "amoral" rulings - Eady was the judge in the Max Mosley case. Dacre said:

“The judge found for Max Mosley because he had not engaged in a “sick Nazi orgy” as the News of the World contested, though for the life of me that seems an almost surreally pedantic logic as some of the participants were dressed in military-style uniform. Mosley was issuing commands in German while one prostitute pretended to pick lice from his hair, a second fellated him and a third caned his backside until blood was drawn. Now most people would consider such activities to be perverted, depraved, the very abrogation of civilised behaviour of which the law is supposed to be the safeguard. Not Justice Eady. To him such behaviour was merely unconventional”.

In response to the entire speech Charlie Beckett writes in his Polis blog:

Dacre has a point about the way that this issue is being dealt with. You should either have a privacy law or not. At the moment we have one creeping in without proper consideration. It’s certainly not good enough to say that ‘it will all come out on the Internet anyway”. Firstly, not everything does come out on the Internet. Secondly, the Internet should not be above ethical scrutiny either. Thirdly, why should newspapers be more restricted than a blog or a website?

There are ways that you can delineate privacy. Children should be protected from publicity. Your own home and holiday should be privileged spaces. But there will always be exceptions which is why judges will always be involved. Where I agree with Dacre is that Eady appears to be showing too much sympathy for the rights of wealthy celebs. He is not balancing that with the fact that those who make their living out of their public personae can’t always use the right to privacy as a way of keeping unsavoury aspects of their lives out of the media.

Now here we move to a more seismic shift even than the Daily Mail's (or the Yorkshire Post's) right or not to doorstep a celebrity or a Formula One honcho, or both. Whilst it may not be "good enough" to say that it "will all come out on the internet" it is nevertheless the case that it often will. The internet is changing the nature of privacy. How long, for example, before celebrity gossip follows the bankers offshore? Who to sue then? The ISPs? The readers who download the "libel"? Or share it on Digg?

When Prince Harry fought in Afghanistan for his remake photo shoot he was allowed to do so "privately", the British media complied with Royal Wishes. His story was first broken in a German paper and an Australian magazine - both online, and both ignored in Britain. Is this not "too much sympathy for the rights of wealthy celebs"? Anyway, online the idea of privacy is a different beast. Go look at a Facebook news feed. Read what 15 year-olds post on their public walls. We are all slowly but surely leaving our private persona behind us as we swim in the digital seas. And not just because cookies are working out what adverts to show us. Recently a parent of teenagers said to me:

It's not the losing of the virginity that worries me, it's the first posting of a sex tape online.

The digital times are changing. What is perhaps interesting in all this is the high levels of trust that Facebook users have of their own social networks. In contrast they have little trust, and less time, for newspapers - look at the circulations, ask how old the average readers are. Wonder about the future.

The answer to Dacre's Privacy concerns is very simple: as ever it is one of trust. If we trusted the press to always act in the public interest - and we don't - then perhaps its arguments about "privacy" would receive a more positive response.

In Onora O'Neill's Reith Lecture of 2002 about "trust" she singled out the press for being long outside the tent of accountability:
Meanwhile, some powerful institutions and professions have managed to avoid not only the excessive but the sensible aspects of the revolutions in accountability and transparency. Most evidently, the media, in particular the print media-while deeply preoccupied with others' untrustworthiness-have escaped demands for accountability (that is, apart from the financial disciplines set by company law and accounting practices). This is less true of the terrestrial broadcasting media, which are subject to legislation and regulation. The BBC (I thought I had better mention that, given where I am!) also has its Charter, Agreement and Producers' Guidelines 2, and those include commitments to impartiality, accuracy, fairness, giving a full view, editorial independence, respect for privacy, standards of taste and decency - I am not claiming that compliance is perfect.

Newspaper editors and journalists are not held accountable in these ways. Outstanding reporting and accurate writing mingle with editing and reporting that smears, sneers and jeers, names, shames and blames. Some reporting 'covers' (or should I say 'uncovers'?) dementing amounts of trivia, some misrepresents, some denigrates, some teeters on the brink of defamation. In this curious world, commitments to trustworthy reporting are erratic: there is no shame in writing on matters beyond a reporter's competence, in coining misleading headlines, in omitting matters of public interest or importance, or in recirculating others' speculations as supposed 'news'. Above all there is no requirement to make evidence accessible to readers.

For all of us who have to place trust with care in a complex world, reporting that we cannot assess is a disaster. If we can't trust what the press report, how can we tell whether to trust those on whom they report? An erratically reliable or unassessable press might not matter for privileged people with other sources of information. They can tell which stories are near the mark and which are confused, vicious or simply false; but for most citizens it matters. How can we tell whether newspapers, web sites and publications that claim to be 'independent' are not, in fact, promoting some agenda? How can we tell whether and when we are on the receiving end of hype and spin, of misinformation and disinformation? There is plenty of more or less accurate reporting, but this is very small comfort if readers who can't tell which are the reliable bits. What we need is reporting that we can assess and check: what we get often can't be assessed or checked by non-experts. If the media mislead, or if readers cannot assess their reporting, the wells of public discourse and public life are poisoned. The new information technologies may be anti-authoritarian, but curiously they are often used in ways that are also anti-democratic. They undermine our capacities to judge others' claims and to place our trust.

So if we want to address the supposed 'crisis of trust' it will not be enough to discipline government, business or the professions- or all of them. We will also need to develop a more robust public culture, in which publishing misinformation and disinformation, and writing in ways that others cannot hope to check, is limited and penalised. Yet can we do so and keep a free press?

We may use twenty-first century communication technologies, but we still cherish nineteenth century views of freedom of the press, above all those of John Stuart Mill. The wonderful image of a free press speaking truth to power and that of investigative journalists as tribunes of the people belong to those more dangerous and heroic times. In democracies the image is obsolescent: journalists face little danger (except on overseas assignments) and the press do not risk being closed down. On the contrary, the press has acquired unaccountable power that others cannot match.

Here is one suggestion to aid O'Neill's wish to develop a "more robust public culture". The press should concede what we all know, that it is at the centre of public debate and for we the people, and Mr Justice Eady the judge, to believe in newspaper editors and journalists - to trust them to take appropriate action when dealing with issues of privacy - we need to know a lot more about them.

The Press is uniquely un-transparent as far as public life goes - and yet it is part of our public life as the Ross/Brand affair proved recently. Yesterday there were calls for publically funded regional newspapers. Ok: let's set the same standards of privacy/transparency for the producers of the news (owners and editors and journalists), as the subjects and objects of the news.

If the Dacre argument is that celebrities have unfair rights to privacy, then surely to balance this the unfair rights of journalists (who are they, what is their "moral compass"?) must equally be questioned. If we knew who was criticising Ross/Brand (who in the sense of knowing about their lives, their attitudes to a range of issues such as, say, intrusion, harassment and comedy ) then this would be good for the industry: we would trust it more.

Yesterday's report from the Committee for Standards in Public Life on "trust" was - as usual - not good for journalism. In a generation (let's call it the Google Generation) journalism could be so trust-busted as to be irrelevant. This must not happen. We the public need to see the private faces of editors and journalists in public - it might just be the salvation of print media.

Because with trust comes a sense of reliability, and perhaps even revenue. We won't be lectured by politicians any more, so why journalists - they are unelected, and, says Paul Dacre, often live in an unreal world where they write for each other.

Toby Young wrote about the journalist's world, and he ended up being played in a Hollywood film by Simon Pegg. I am almost certain that somewhere in the body of British journalists's private lives we can find a few more winning love stories like Toby Young's. Paul Dacre this is your chance to tell us about you. Are you a lover or a fighter?

Or even a blogger?

1 comment:

pkamons said...

The teenage consumers driving the phenomenon of social networks like Facebook don't merely trust their virtual environment, they believe they have the same rights there as they do in "real" life. Hard lessons will come when their privacy is breached by a rogue schoolmate, or concerned parent or university admissions officer. Potentially ruinous for this supposedly highly valued consumer.