The public interest should have no price tag

11 April 2007 – The servicemen who told rather than sold the story of their incarceration in Iran have more integrity than Defence Minister Des Browne, now desperately trying to hold back the floodgates against Fleet Street cant.

If Vice-Admiral Adrian John was prepared to capitulate at the mere sight of a sea of Fleet Street cheque books, and the Defence Minister lacked the courage to intervene, it is small wonder that pundits from Teesside to Tehran are having a field day at their expense.

The public interest may be served by allowing service personnel to tell their story outside the confines of stage-managed media events (in Iran and the UK) but when they do it for money their motive become as suspect as those of their superiors. If information is genuinely in the public interest it should have no price-tag. Buying an ‘exclusive’ is the antithesis of press freedom.

The motives of the media are transparent at least: milking the most of every opportunity to make money – even if that does include turning on anyone willing to pocket their offers of cash for confessions, or firing off salvos against anyone who challenges their hypocrisy.

Murdoch’s Times (10/4/07) rails against this ‘sanctioning (of) sensationalism’, for example, while its sister paper The Sun titillates readers with a tawdry front page splash: ‘Faye: My Ordeal – I feared being raped by Iranians… stripped to knickers in a dingy cell’.

This may be just another PR fiasco among many that have littered the Bush/Blair adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also signals abroad the extent to which the media in the UK now exert an influence over public polity.  Political leaders have demonstrated a craven willingness to pander to the media for cheap electoral advantage, so their criticisms are scorned.

And at the heart of the matter is the dominance of the cheque-book. In the media marketplace, anyone and everyone now has their price – from disgraced Cabinet Ministers to captured marines. A precedent has been set from which it will be hard to pull back. Having once bought into such Mephistofelian deals, a new breed of military PR minders will be needed to ‘control’ the stories that are allowed out. However you can rest assured that the Official Secrets Act will still be used as a weapon against journalists who prefer to delve without the aid of a cash dispenser.

As the marines have quickly learned to their cost, chequebook journalism leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Inevitably the highest bids were to the only woman and the youngest man, and some cash offers have been withdrawn. Now watch for rubbishing stories in rival newspapers from colleagues and acquaintances.  Meanwhile the proprietors are laughing all the way to the bank.

Mike Jempson
Director, The MediaWise Trust

(Bulletin No 135)

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