The finest – and first – free press in the world has become a tragic and bawdy farce. The upshot of the Leveson inquiry will be some form of press regulation. As the Guardian points out today, if Leveson calls for the Portuguese police to divulge the name of the journalist to whom it gave a copy of the translation of Madeleine McCann’s diary, which he has the power to do under the terms of the inquiry, that is regulation.
Our popular press is now largely disgraced – but its fall should not be relished. I write as someone who loved her time on a tabloid newspaper, and was awed by the privileges it conferred even on the youngest hack. It is a strange retribution that the arrival of new media, effectively free on demand, and demonstrating their democratising effect, should coincide with the press’ ignominious demise.
It need not have happened. Time and again we have as a society waived privacy laws and threats to self-regulation by the outrageously self-serving Press Complaints Commission, even though we knew they deserved it. We recognized that democracy, as de Tocqueville saw so clearly, is reliant on a well-informed electorate and occasional excesses were the price we paid. Tocqueville found such an electorate in America and saw at once that there could never be a French-style Terror there because of it. It has been worth fighting for – but the fight has been convincingly lost.
It may sound absurd to say it today, but the media is at root a Christian institution, emerging from the struggle by pamphleteers like John Milton for the right to think and speak one’s own thoughts without the threat of state sanctions. Freedom of expression mattered enough in the 17th century to die for, and it is on the implacable ‘No’ of the nonconformists to state censorship that our press is built.
But freedom is not licence. And truth is not to be bartered. If you believe, as our culture sadly does, that truth is a matter of personal interpretation, you end up where we are now. Truth is not a commodity you trade, neither is it something you create. And it is not divisible i.e. the means only rarely justify the ends (as for example in the deception practised by the MI5 to lure the Nazis away from the date of the D-Day Landings).
My job at Lapido is to encourage religious literacy in and through the media, and it is a task I find harder to justify today. I have fondly believed that at heart, journalists are curious, decent people who will rightly expose hypocrisy and cant, and welcome altruism when they find it.
On that basis I have for 20 years encouraged faith-based enterprises to come out of the shadows and shine their light. I’ve done this despite being on the receiving end of tabloid tactics. Tabloid newspapers have also told my stories well and in ways we could never have done otherwise. But not until very recently have I sensed that the bullying that some journalists are prone to has become a culture in itself.
Bullying is too mild a word in fact. Have we forgotten already that Princess Diana was harried to death?
I worked as a researcher for a British MP who eventually lost his seat for abusing his privilege in the House. Standard reporters and others actually camped inside the block of flats where he lived and worked during the week. His hapless minions – I was just a temp - had to run the gauntlet of this nightmare daily. On one occasion, as the speculation surrounding his marriage and his misdemeanours escalated, I was chased down the road by two women hacks grabbing at my clothing. It was a tiny but unnerving example of the unremitting abuse that people like the McCanns have suffered. As a violation it is somewhere on the same scale as rape, and leaves a permanent scar.
I have recently been involved first hand in another case of abuse by the London ‘press’ that indicates, not amorality for this behaviour justifies itself in shrilly righteous terms – but moral perversity. Journalists have turned hunters, and ordinary people’s mishaps are their prey.
The only way out of this quagmire is to restate that the truth is something that exists and it matters. Without it, there can be no consensus by which to decide and self-regulate social ‘norms’. The state must, by definition, do it for us. And that is what every tyranny does.
So what is truth?
Truth actually has little if anything to do with religion, although religions try to protect it. Truth is what truth does: it does not bear false witness, it is not greedy for gain, it protects all things, it loves its neighbour as itself.
The biblical notion of truth is, at any rate, fully disclosed. The values that flow from it are not arbitrary. Disagreements may be had on the basis of what all can see and read.
But the values of the hackery are anybody’s guess. When a newspaper can with impunity accuse a grieving mother of ‘selling’ her own child to pay off her debts, as the press did to Mrs McCann, we are on the threshold of disaster.
A reporter came to me last week and accused a client of mine of holding views that were at odds with ‘modern London’. This apparently justified lurid headlines and the reiteration of unsubstantiated hearsay. She now wanted ‘access’ to him to write a feature about him.
Because I do not know what ‘modern London’s’ ‘truth’ is; because it seems to depend on what one Metro or Standard journalist thinks will best sell a paper on any day in question; because there was no hint that this reporter knew the difference between fact and innuendo, I decided I had no basis on which to trust her.
And that’s just one more tiny nail in the coffin of religious literacy.