|Present arguments for and against freedom of the journalist
in the light of recent debates concerning privacy legislation. Use recent
examples such as the coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of
Wales to illustrate your arguments.
Investigative journalism may have a place in exposing illegal activities, but might be questioned when the investigation is simply into a individual's private or sexual activities. This question will also be examined as to whether the newspaper's morality is purely a stance taken by an editor, reflecting out of date moral issues, a newspaper's crusade against an individual or simply a mechanism to sell more issues of the newspaper.
The current debate concerning privacy legislation has been addressed, or some might say pre-empted, by a recent meeting of newspaper editors and Lord Wakeham of the Press Complaints Commission. Together they have tried to introduce guidelines as to the behaviour and policy of newspapers to protect the privacy of individuals.
This idea is a positive step ahead of any legislation; the question arising as to how effective a self regulative code will be. Claims of publishing in the "public interest" may still allow justification of exposing what an editor considers wrong doing. It would therefore be simply a decision reached by an editors opinion or perception of morality, compounded by the political stance or position many newspapers take on issues.
This may be one of the strongest arguments for government legislation upon privacy laws, that the interests and stance of newspapers may over-ride any self imposed guidelines; especially in the face of competition and the fear that a rival newspaper would publish before themselves. Although difficult to draught, legislation may be necessary if the following guidelines are not adhered to.
Following the death of Princess Diana, Lord Wakeham consulted the editors
of national newspapers to introduce a new Code of Practice and guidelines.
The five main themes addressed; harassment, privacy, children, public interest
and intrusion into grief:
Lord Wakeham assures us that, "the clear message is that self regulation is already delivering more than legislation ever could - and more besides" (The Press Gazette September 26 1997)
The recent examples of two prominent politicians serve to illustrate
both sides of any proposed privacy self regulation, its limitations and
possible implications. It also shows shortcomings of the Press Complaints
Commission guidelines listed above.
The subsequent Nolan Report found,
" Mr Hamilton's conduct fell seriously and persistently below the standards which the House is entitled to expect of its Members. Had Mr Hamilton still been a Member, we would have recommended a substantial suspension from the service of the House" (The Guardian November 7)This inquiry could be said to have been initiated by the newspaper investigations, and presents and supports a strong case for the freedom of journalists.
Secondly, the more recent example of Piers Merchant, the Member of Parliament for Beckenham. As a brief synopsis; in April of this year Mr Merchant was shown by newspapers in the company of a young female researcher, with the allegations of him having a relationship with her. This he denied vehemently, accusing the girl of, "setting him up" to make money. The Conservative leadership, possibly his wife and his constituency accepted his explanation and he continued in public life.
Six months later the Sunday Mirror featured seven pages of pictures of the couple taken by a hidden video camera. Despite more protestations of innocence and the young lady researcher appearing outside the family home with Mr Merchant's wife to deny the accusations, the next day he resigned from public office.
Both of the above examples are representative of the press today. They have the power to expose prominent figures, whose only recourse often are expensive libel actions.The irony of these two cases of press exposure are the penalties attached; in that Mr Hamilton, accused of financial irregularities and lying to his party chiefs, resigned only from his position as junior minister and took his place on the back benches. Mr Merchant resigned as a Member of Parliament, still has to live in the community of his ex constituents and has lost his means of income. Mr Hamilton is currently appearing on "chat shows" and is publishing an autobiography. (Independent on Sunday 7 December 1997)
It would appear that the r current crime in the eyes of the newspapers is that of infidelity. A succession of both Conservative and Labour Cabinet Ministers have left their wives for younger women without losing office, others such as Cecil Parkinson and David Mellor were simply relegated to the back benches.( The Observer 19 October 1997)
It is the morality of editors that could be questioned as much as those involved in the "scandals" that they publish. There must be an argument for privacy laws when the journalist has the power to ruin someone's career, over an extra marital affair that most of the population may consider unimportant and not affecting their confidence in a politician's ability.
It might be understandable that a politician automatically denies such an affair, knowing full well the consequences of the media descending upon his home and family. It could be argued that the morality of Victorian times is almost reflected in the policy of the editors, not in touch with modern life.
"All of a sudden the tabloids look outrageously out of step with world in which we live. It is only in their pages that we meet the old morality about extramarital sex, in all its boggling simplicity. This tale of Piers Merchant is just a pale replay of other scandals that echo down the years." ( The Observer 19 October 1997)The new press guidelines mentioned previously, agreed by the editors and Press Complaints Commission, look to have been largely ignored. It was only a matter of three weeks after the declaration respecting privacy by the national editors that the articles appeared on Mr Merchant's private life.
Many times, tabloid editors have offered the defence that if people did not want to read about scandal, they would not buy the newspapers. This may not be enough justification. Public opinion and morality led by a newspaper.
The final point in the question of an editor's morality or stance is the fact that the editor of the Sunday Mirror is a woman. Therefore the wife of the offending politician is portrayed as the victim, the young girlfriend as a whore and the politician loses his career. Although The Sunday Mirror has a long tradition of "scandal", the gender of the editor may have had some bearing on the articles attitudes towards infidelity. Perhaps the Merchant's marriage already had problems, perhaps it could have coped with a private admission of infidelity, probably not in the limelight and publicity that followed the Sunday Mirror articles. This is a very strong argument that there should be immediate legislation to prevent intrusion into private relationships, Mr Merchant's only real crime might be called stupidity to trust those around him and to be "caught" twice.
Any discussion on future privacy legislation must briefly mention Diana, Princess of Wales if only, as her death may be the catalyst to bring about change. The Press Complaints Commission and national newspapers new guidelines mentioned earlier, could be said to be the response to accusations that the press both caused her death and profited from the ensuing increased circulation. It might also be argued that if the press had not implemented these proposals, Parliament would have been forced to legislate against the intrusion of newspapers. Even so, Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the News Of The World and Sun newspapers that bought pictures of the Princess from the paparazzi was quoted as saying that privacy legislation would be, " a privilege for the already privileged." (The Guardian 8 October 1997) There is an argument within this statement that the rich and famous could consider themselves free to do as they liked, with little fear of exposure. This is a risk of too much restriction of press reporting.
In conclusion, the Neil Hamilton case, the subsequent Nolan enquiry and their findings that politicians had received irregular payments from lobby groups would suggest that freedom of the journalist is important in a democracy. This is only one recent example of the press exposing political wrongdoing. However, it could be argued that journalists, demanding their freedom to investigate and expose public figures, present a stronger case for privacy legislation through their editors decisions to publish sexual scandal. It has been shown that the new press guidelines, whilst sounding sincere and honourable, might only apply to recently bereaved royalty, and then only when forced upon them in the face of public opinion. The vilifying of Piers Merchant and his adultery could, under different circumstances, (perhaps a different government) have been the final press attack upon the privacy of the individual that provoked legislation through Parliament. Instead, the earlier death of Diana and criticism of the press has caused the industry to pre-empt any legislation by introducing its self regulation and has made an argument for no new legislation by assuring us that they can regulate themselves.
The importance placed upon sexual scandal has been shown to be greater
than that of financial misdeeds by some tabloid newspapers. It has also
shown that the penalties for the two examples given have been very different.