‘Privacy is for paedos’. ‘Circulation defines the public interest’. ‘In 21 years of invading people’s privacy I’ve never found anybody doing any good’. Fleet street veteran Paul McMullan’s take on modern journalism as related to the Leveson inquiry may not be pretty, but it sets in sharp relief the starkly amoral wasteland of sections of the tabloid press, the precise contours of which Lord Justice Leveson has been tasked to expose. In defending, amongst other things, hacking into the mobile telephone of a murdered schoolgirl, McMullan’s stance is abhorrent; yet it is also compelling, since it is the definitive articulation of what the Guardian called ‘the end point of the regulation-free, market-driven, anything-goes tabloid morality’.
Solutions to the present crisis are not noted for possessing a similar degree of uncompromising certainty, unless it is for that which is emphatically not desired. Large sections of the printed media face a paradoxical impasse, recognizing that the status quo of self-regulation has failed, but viewing any sort of official or statutory regulation as the death knell for freedom of speech. Before Leveson reports next month, therefore, the Carnegie Trust has taken the startlingly innovative step of bothering to ask the public exactly what they think should happen next, the results of which are rather revealing.
The report, out this week, is called ‘Voicing the Public Interest: Listening to the Public on Press Regulation’. It contains opinion polls commissioned jointly by Carnegie and the thinktank Demos, and is unsurprising in many respects: confirmation of the widespread low levels of expectation regarding the morality and venality of journalists won’t make anyone fall off their chair. So, too, the fairly unremarkable finding that the public, by and large, ‘would like more say’ in press regulation. The real interest is contained in the underlying statistics, particularly when people were asked under what circumstances a specific action taken by a journalist would constitute acceptable behaviour. As Martyn Evans, Chief Executive of the Carnegie Trust, observed: ‘this national debate has been taking place without information about where normal people would draw the line between what is and is not acceptable in the name of the 'public interest'.’
The line, as it turns out, tends to be drawn much sooner than one might think. Not only do 63% of those questioned feel that the general public should play a role in setting guidelines, with 77% wanting an independent regulator, but the vast majority were far more reluctant to publish material where there has been significant intrusion into the subject’s life. Just 29% supported the publication of a kiss and tell story about a sports star or actor, using information gained through interviewing friends and neighbours; only 41% support publication of a story about a FTSE 100 director making money illegally, with information for the story gained from going through the dustbins outside of a house; and even were a Judge or a Member of Parliament to actively ‘put others at risk’, support for publishing material obtained illegally languished at close to 20%.
In his evidence to the Leveson inquiry, editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop – who, as the most sued man in Britain, has first-hand experience of the litigious consequences of legislation which circumscribes the press – spoke for many of his colleagues when he stated that ‘most of the heinous crimes that came up and have made such a splash in front of this Inquiry have already been illegal. Contempt of court is illegal. Phone tapping is illegal. Policemen taking money is illegal. All of these things don't need a code. We already have laws for them’. Unfortunately, the seemingly decided view of the public – at least on the evidence of this report – is that such laws simply don’t go far enough.