Ten myths about press abuse – Hugh Grant

23 11 2012

Myth 1 – Only celebrities and politicians suffer at the hands of popular papers.

To an extent, we already know how false this is. There are victims like the Dowlers, like the families of the little girls murdered at Soham, like the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, like the victims of the London bombings. They were all identified as capable of making a commercial profit for certain newspapers, and therefore had their privacy invaded.

Then there are the innocent people whose privacy has been stolen simply because they are related to, or work with subjects of commercial interest to some papers. In others words, collateral damage. The mothers and fathers and children of hacking victims who also had their phones hacked, or who were door-stepped. Or the children who face humiliation in the playground because their father is a footballer whose privacy a paper has stolen, most often not in the public interest, but for profit.

And what about the innocent citizens caught up in the periphery of a newsworthy crime and shamelessly monstered by some British papers? What about Christopher Jefferies, the innocent landlord of the murdered Joanna Yeates? Or Robert Murat, to this day receiving death threats with regard to the abduction of Madeleine McCann, a crime of which he is entirely innocent? Or more recently Rebecca Leighton, effectively found guilty in certain papers of mass murder before being judged by the police to be entirely innocent? The common factor in all these cases? Money.The stirring up of public outrage, at the expense of the individuals’ rights, while potentially jeopardising real justice, simply sold newspapers.

And even though the papers admit guilt and are made to pay fines by the courts, as in all three of these cases, they keep doing it because the business model still shows a profit.

Myth 2 – Egregious abuses of privacy happened only at the News of the World.

This is like that paper’s old defence of “one rogue reporter”. And just as that has been shown to be false so, I am confident, will this. The Information Commissioner’s report in 2006 listed 32 newspapers and magazines that had used Steve Whittamore and his illegal dark arts. Dark arts that included blagging and bribing, among others, phone companies and the DVLA. I would also of course point to the words of Paul McMullan when I secretly recorded him. He also concedes that phone hacking wasn’t just at the News of the World.

Myth 3 – In attempting to deal with the abuses of some sections of the press you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I argue that it is not hard for any normal person to distinguish between what is a baby and what is bathwater. In this case, the baby is public interest journalism, of which we are lucky to have some of the best in the world. The bathwater, meanwhile, is not really journalism at all any more, though it once was. It now has at its core a different business model. That model, hiding behind a fig leaf of a little journalism, is the appropriation, usually by criminal means, of British citizens’ fundamental human right of privacy. This is done not in the public interest, but for commercial gain. Its methods include elements of theft, intimidation, blackmail and extortion. Its victims are often vulnerable.

There may be grey areas between these two, but I argue that they are nothing like as grey or as extensive as they are cracked up to be. And that most muddying of the waters between the two is a deliberate strategy on the part of the privacy invasion industry.

I say, given that identifying baby and bathwater is not that hard, that we should just take the baby out of the bath. Or rather, I believe the baby is now quite big enough to get out of the bath itself. Why have good journalists agreed for so long to protect the racketeers in their midst? Why have they gone along with the omerta? Why did the exposure of the phone hacking scandal come down to the New York Times, and to the bravery of one UK newspaper and its editor? I would argue that the main reason is the same as the reason for everyone else’s silence on this subject for so long. Fear.

Myth 4 – Any attempt to regulate the press means we are heading for Zimbabwe.

First of all it is important to distinguish between the people who genuinely care about press freedom, and those who weep crocodile tears, whose only real concern is the preservation of their lucrative privacy invading business model.

Then I would say this. That of course it would be preferable for the press to be self regulating effectively. But the plain fact is that self-regulation has failed. Failed to prevent phone hacking and other forms of intrusion, failed to protect vulnerable people from press abuse. No one seriously denies this now. I note that even Paul Dacre has started talking about ombudsmen.

That to characterise the argument as one between a free press at one end of the scale, and Zimbabwe at the other is simplistic, or irresponsible, or (most often) self-serving. There are, of course, many gradations in between those two poles.

That it is absurd to label anyone who believes in protecting citizens against the worst abuses of certain newsrooms as a “muzzler” of the press. To me, freedom of the press is just as important as the freedom of individuals to enjoy an expectation of privacy. I am, for instance, very supportive of those who want to protect free speech via reform of our libel laws.

That every other important industry in this country that has the power to wreck other people’s lives is regulated by more than itself. And our press is often loud (and often right) in its calls for many of those regulations to be tighter. The only truly powerful industry in this country still regulated by itself is the press. Why? Broadcast journalism has been subject to regulation from the start. Our TV news is excellent. And at the House of Lords Committee the BBC (Panorama), Channel 4 and ITV gave evidence. As did John Ware and Ray Fitzwalter, both highly respected and long-standing investigative journalists. All, without exception, were clear that the statutory codes and compliance obligations of the TV regulators did not interfere with their ability to carry out watchdog journalism in the public interest.

Myth 5 – Current privacy law under the Human Rights Act muzzles the press.

If this were so, why has a civil case for breach of privacy never been taken against the Guardian?

Why do popular papers’ lawyers so seldom even bother to turn up to argue a public interest defence in front of the judge when one of their stories has been injuncted at the eleventh hour? Or indeed in the cold light of next day? Is it because there IS no public interest defence? And if that is so, why do their editorials rail so loudly against so called abuses of these injunctions? Misnaming them as “super-injunctions” when they are merely anonymised to fulfil their purpose? Calling them “undemocratic”, “backdoor” or “muzzling”? Is it perhaps not about press freedom or public interest at all? Are these editorials merely about protecting a business model? A lucrative racket?

Who would we rather decide what was in the public interest and what was merely interesting to the public? Judges? Or the editor of the paper standing to profit from the article in question?

Myth 6 – Judges always find against the press.

Have the judges in the injunction cases relating to personal privacy thus far made many egregious errors? I would argue that they haven’t. And that neither have they shown a natural bias one way or the other. The recent case of Rio Ferdinand showed that the judges in these cases will rule for the paper if they feel (rightly or wrongly) that there is a public interest defence.

Myth 7 – Privacy can only ever be a rich man’s toy.

One of the objections most often (sometimes correctly) cited against privacy law is that it is expensive to take out an injunction, denying access to justice for people without substantial means. But then why do so many of the popular papers who complain about this also campaign so loudly for the abolition of Conditional Fee Arrangements? Is it that this privacy law is seriously threatening their business model? And that in fact the fewer people that have access to it the better? Particularly as those people who can afford access can then be dismissed as wealthy and privileged?

There may well be a problem with access to justice for those without means who wish to defend their privacy rights. The answer is to improve the access not to abolish the justice.

Myth 8 – That most sex exposes carry a public interest defence.

If a politician campaigns on issues like family values, and he is caught having an extra marital affair, then of course it is right for a newspaper to tell the public.

If the England football manager has deemed that the England football captain should be a person of traditional moral virtue, and that same footballer has claimed that he is a “changed person”, then you might argue (as the judge did recently) that it is in the public interest to know about his affairs.

But it seems clear to me, as it does to most judges, that the vast majority of the public interest defences from popular papers for their sex exposes are bogus. The judges recognise that the motive for printing the story was commercial profit, not public interest.

Those papers will argue that Ryan Giggs has traded on his reputation as a faithful family man. In fact, he hasn’t particularly. And even if he had it is absurd to think that people are buying Ryan Giggs football boots because of his moral probity. They are buying them because he’s a brilliant footballer. (And this is to leave aside questions of the rights of some newspapers to be moral arbiters. How is their moral conscience? Was there anything more comical or grotesque, for instance, than the News of the World, thundering about people’s “sordid secrets”?)

Some disagree with me, but I would also question most sex exposes of politicians. Unless, as I say, the politician has been elected on the platform of traditional family values, or has publicly criticised or legislated against the private sexual conduct of other people, or is breaking the law or harming anyone. I don’t believe that knowing the intimate details of his or her sex life is in the public interest. Some of history’s greatest leaders have had colourful sex lives.

Myth 9 – People like me want to be in the papers, and need them, and therefore our objections to privacy intrusions are hypocritical.

First of all, for most people I know who are branded “celebrities”, the celebrity was not the end it itself. Those people do exist, but I would argue that they are in the minority. Most so-called “celebrities” are just people who happened to become singers, or actors, or footballers, or whatever, and then also happened – through luck sometimes, but also sometimes hard work or talent – to become successful.

In my experience they seldom want to be in the papers for the sake of it, to promote themselves. In many cases they hate having to be in them at all. The issue only arises when they have something – a film for example – to promote, when there is a certain pressure to bang the drum a bit in advance of the release. Occasionally this pressure is contractual, but much more often it is simply moral. Typically, the “project” will have involved many people working very hard over long periods of time. And often large amounts of money have been staked. You would simply feel bad if you didn’t do a bit of PR.

But having said that, it is important to realise how insignificant, in relative terms, PR is to the success or failure of a project. To take films as an example, the most important factor by far is simply whether it works as an entertainment. That’s about 85% of it. The marketing and release strategy might be another 10%. PR is merely the cherry on the cake. The final 5%. There have been thousands of examples of films with enormous media attention, wall to wall tabloid coverage, that have gone on to fail at the box office.

So if PR is the final, small cherry, how big a part of that cherry is print media? These days, it is considered far less important than TV and radio. Take a film I acted in – “Love Actually”. When it came time to organise a press campaign, the ensemble cast nearly all followed my lead in choosing not to give interviews to the UK tabloids. (Most seldom or never did anyway). The film went on to be a huge success, particularly in the UK. I point all this out merely to counter the arguments of certain papers that they make or break films, or actors, who therefore have no right to complain about any abuses.

The only significant argument that can be made for including tabloid papers in a PR campaign these days, is the risk of incurring their wrath by excluding them. Hell hath no fury like a tabloid not invited to a press junket or excluded from premiere party. And so we are back to fear again.

It is also very important to remember that when a person DOES do an interview with a paper or magazine they are doing it by consent. It’s a form of barter. The paper gets what it hopes will be a boost in sales, and the person gets what he hopes will be some helpful noise about his forthcoming project. It is like bartering 12 eggs for a bale of hay. Or like me selling you a pint of milk for 50p. When the deal is done, it’s done. You wouldn’t then say, “You sold me your milk, you slut. I’m now entitled to help myself to your milk for ever afterwards”.

Finally on this subject I should say that I have never in my life “tipped off” the press in the hope of being photographed. I concede that this may happen with a certain type of person who enjoys media attention, or – as is now possible – whose principal source of income is celebrity itself rather than the job that gave rise to that celebrity in the first place. But the behaviour of one person or a group of people does not mean it should be open season on another group of people. And in my experience, the tipping off of the papers is exceptionally rare. I wondered if I was wrong or naive about this, and recently asked ex-Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt what his experience had been. He confirmed that I was right. In my opinion the oft-repeated arguments from popular papers’ editors about the hypocrisy of celebrities who secretly court the media is largely specious. And, of course, convenient.

Myth 10 – The tabloid press hacks are just loveable rogues.

Perhaps they once were. Perhaps a few still are. But I see an awful lot of self glamorising going on, self mythologising. I don’t regard the people who tapped Milly Dowler’s phone, or ordered the tapping, or allowed it to happen, or covered it up, as lovable rogues. I see them as cowards and bullies. I see them as people who have lived above the law for so long that they have started to believe their own propaganda. Power truly does tend to corrupt.

Hugh Grant is a Director of Hacked Off, the Campaign for a Free and Accountable Press

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26 11 2012
Law and Media Round Up – 26 November 2012 « Inforrm's Blog

[...] Ten myths about press abuse – Hugh Grant [...]

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