by Brian Cathcart
The Sunday Times does not mince its words, with a leading article entitled ‘The Sun’s brave lone stand for press freedom’.
Prince Harry, it declares, ‘has put the issue of press freedom squarely on the agenda’, and the Sun, by publishing pictures of him with his clothes off, had exposed the absurdity of a situation where ‘British newspaper readers have been deprived of information freely available to their counterparts overseas’. This, said the Sunday Times, recalled the abdication crisis and the Spycatcher case.
Any idea that the Sun acted from commercial reasons was ‘spurious’, because ‘newspapers are fighting for their lives’ and ‘if they are not commercial they will die’.
And worse: ‘There is a dangerous coalition forming of aggrieved film and television stars, out-of-sorts Labour politicians and bien pensants who would happily bring much greater regulation and censorship to the press,’ warned the paper. The future of the press is at stake, and ‘if it is gagged and stifled it will die and the country would be hugely poorer for it’.
This is so wrong-headed that it is hard to know where to start, but perhaps it’s best to begin by pointing out something many will know but which the Sunday Times should still have mentioned: it is a sister paper of the Sun, and its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, is presumably the person who gave final approval for publication of the Harry pictures. So whatever about the Sun, the Sunday Times isn’t taking a brave stand but merely backing the boss. A more scrupulous newspaper might have declared this interest to its readers (just as, for example, the Sunday Times likes politicians to be open about their interests where they have them).
This isn’t about press freedom, and it isn’t about who decides what goes into national newspapers. It is about the industry’s ability to regulate itself.
The national papers long ago agreed that editors could not have absolute discretion over publishing. Where journalism is capable of doing harm (for instance by breaching privacy) it is accepted without argument that editors can’t just make up their own rules, but must provide justifications that meet a certain standard.
Who sets that standard? The editors and owners of national papers have insisted for decades that they can do the job by self-regulation, and their current instrument is the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), where editors themselves were allowed to write the rules.
In the case of the Harry pictures the Sun, the biggest selling paper, owned by the most powerful media tycoon, unequivocally and obviously broke the rules. For this it provided a series of (to use the Sunday Times’s word) spurious justifications, none of which met the standards set by the PCC. It was also helpfully warned that it would be breaking the rules, but it just went ahead.
What will be the consequence? Nothing. If the PCC actually investigates (and it seems to be having difficulty deciding), then the worst that can happen is that the Sun might have to publish an apology in a box on page two several months hence. We are told that Sun journalists have the PCC code written into their contracts, but in the event of an adverse PCC finding will the editor, Dominic Mohan, be subject to disciplinary proceedings at News International? Pigs will fly first.
There is no defence for what the Sun did, as is explained with care here.
The analogy of the abdication crisis is false because in that case newspaper proprietors conspired to hide the story from their readers (much as, more recently, most of them conspired to hide the story of phone hacking). The analogy of Spycatcher is even more deceptive, because there the public interest case for publication was cast iron – it was a well-sourced book about crime, corruption and national security (not some snaps of a private party in Las Vegas).
Next, the Sunday Times wants us to think that the survival of the press is at stake. This is just as dishonest. The Sun makes very large profits (though we don’t know how large because the figures are concealed). So do the companies publishing the Express, the Mail and the Mirror. Nor, even if they were nearly broke, could we ever accept the argument that papers should be allowed to behave unethically so that they can survive, because that would be a liar’s charter.
And then there is that dangerous coalition of bien pensants wanting to censor the press. No, nobody wants to censor the press, but plenty of people would like it to obey its own rules, rules which editors never tire of telling the public they support, and rigorously adhere to. (The editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, told the Leveson inquiry: ‘All Sunday Times journalists are obliged to abide by the Press Complaints Commission Editors‘ Code of Practice.’)
And ‘plenty of people‘ is right: the Sunday Times itself published a poll (though without giving it much prominence) showing that 61 per cent of respondents thought the Sun was wrong to publish the pictures and that 68 per cent thought Harry’s behaviour was acceptable.
The Sun’s actions are just the latest proof of the inability and unwillingness of the press to regulate itself, a failure that has been consistent for at least 60 years. Unless we want them to go on failing – in other words, unless we want to grant the editors and proprietors a licence to go on doing whatever they like, including intruding on your privacy and mine – self-regulation must be replaced by regulation that is effective and is independent of the industry, just as it must be independent of government.
Incidentally, like almost all of the national Sunday papers, with the exception of the Independent on Sunday, the Sunday Times chose to report and comment upon the Harry affair without giving any editorial space to anyone who expressed the opinion which, its own poll showed, 61 per cent of the country holds. Hardly a quote appeared from anyone giving what appears to be the majority view. So much for freedom of expression.
Brian Cathcart is a founder of Hacked Off and teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart