Where to stand in the Fourth Estate

Attacks on the Guardian's supposed hypocrisy conflates public scrutiny with gossip and entertainment. 

Dom Shaw
3 September 2013

Flickr/NS Newsflash. Some rights reserved.

The torrid debates around the detention of David Miranda, partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and the actions taken against journalists in the phone-hacking scandal have exposed a potential set of double standards that has red-top tabloid champions seething at the perceived injustice and the UK’s Guardian newspaper claiming the higher ground. The tone is unmistakable as both sides take the mastiffs of their morals out for a little trot around the Fourth Estate.

In one corner, Brendan O’Neill and many others deride the Guardian’s railing at the use of Terrorism legislation against what it defines as legitimate journalistic endeavour, whilst staying silent on the long judicial limbo hovering over their compatriots in the hacking scandal.

 In the other, the broadsheets point to the moral chasm between investigative journalism that holds the Government to account and prurient muckraking amongst celebrities and the families of murder victims. In the digital din of perpetual content churn, it is not always Juvenal’s question ‘who shall guard the guardians?’ that is being answered.

Leaving aside the increasingly frequent instances when these two worlds collide and a broadsheet behaves like a tabloid and vice versa, the arguments on both sides have some legitimacy regardless of the context. The tabloids could point convincingly to a public interest in MP’s expenses, rather less so when framing a celebrity marriage as a sham.

Where you stand on Fleet Street should not determine how strongly you defend the principle of public interest over public prurience. I can think of many instances where the Times, Guardian, Independent and the Telegraph would have to perform some inelegant ethical pirouettes to argue a moral imperative for some of their more deliberately titillating pieces on actors and writers in recent years. The constant rearranging of the dresser to accommodate what gossip columnists like to call ‘lifestyle’ pieces alongside newsgathering, investigation and comment is always present in an ever demanding content stream. It doesn’t mean that the use of legitimate investigative methods and being allowed to make a public interest case for the use of leaked whistleblower material that speaks truth to power shouldn’t be a constant. Like death, taxes, the poor and Operation Yewtree, they are always with us.

However, in an age where the US & UK Governments are allowing their intelligence services to take the lead in deciding what is or isn’t a security issue; permitting their chief spooks to decide what must remain beneath the covert and all-encompassing mantle of anti-terrorism, then it is important that the press challenges what the state has ceded to civil servants at every opportunity. Not through special pleading and asking for some separate legal status for anyone with a press pass. There are criminal laws to cover the outright intrusion that has more to do with top off than cover-up. That, combined with a right to protect whistleblowers for the public good should see anyone, whether they are a hack or a hackney carriage driver receiving the legal right to protect their sources.

It was interesting to see Peter Preston, elder statesman of the Guardian stepping in to comment on the detention of David Miranda when he famously caved in to a court order in the eighties and handed over documents that were quickly traced to whistleblower Sarah Tisdall who then served a sentence for breaching the Official Secrets Act. She wasn’t convicted for any threat to national security, but on the tenuous argument of the Attorney General that although she had leaked nothing that was a danger to the nation, she might do so in the future. This is Orwell’s ‘thoughtcrime’ writ large and it was the perfect opportunity way back then for Preston to serve a little gaol time to oppose a specious gateway for the battle now being waged in a far more surveilled and technically exposed world. Maybe if the press had resisted a flawed and dangerous argument at that crucial stage, then schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 would not exist to be exploited.

In ‘1984’ there was a perpetual war that provided a handy raison d’etre for the draconian vigilance of the watchers. At the time of the Tisdall episode, the Security Service watchers were mainly based on the top floors of Euston Tower, above the ground floor studios of Capital Radio. It used to amuse me, the idea of them slipping past Kenny Everett to trail some Russian target down the Charing Cross Road. Now they are everywhere and they don’t even need to step out for a latte.

We have for some time been living in a world where there is always an intelligence argument for secrecy about covert surveillance and its methodology.  The press should always be testing this principle and it is a tension that must exist if their role is to have any significance in the age of Yochai Benkler’s Networked Fourth Estate defined as ‘the set of practices, organizing models, and technologies that are associated with the free press and provide a public check on the branches of government.’ For some reason old Yochai doesn’t mention the upskirt shots of the paparazzi and the practice of ‘collects’ - those intimate photos of the murder victim, coaxed from grieving families usually by the unpaid interns now ubiquitous at both ends of Grub Street. But then he’s probably a busy man fending off interviews about Wikileaks et al.

When a politician prohibited from conflating his personal financial interests with a public position is then found to be taking the shilling of those he awards access to patronage, it is legitimate for that hypocrisy to be exposed and the argument can then be had about the methods used to discover this information. It’s just a shame it happens every news day. Repetition dulls the readership however proud curmudgeonly ancient Roman finger-waggers such as Juvenal would be.

However if a soap star or local mayor has not suggested fidelity as the abiding tenet of their every waking breath, then the details of their fornication with the lower mammals or the surprising use of random items from the fruit bowl to satisfy their baser desires is interesting and may sell papers and groceries, but is none of our business.

Entertaining though, isn’t it? But you and every reader know full well that if the aim is to feed the entertainment industry, then that is not and never has been journalism. That is treating Juvenal to an up-toga shot. That’ll teach him to step out of his chariot without his knees locked together.

Both stories may have been exposed by similar means, but it’s the principle not the methods that need defending. Everything else is PR.


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