Who can the public trust?

21 November 2003 – Days after Rupert Murdoch let it be known that the political leanings of his mass circulation papers are up for grabs now that a tough guy has taken over the Tory party, Press Complaints Commission Director Guy Black has announced that he is to be Press Secretary to the new Tory leader.

Let’s hope his vacancy will be properly advertised this time. When his predecessor at the PCC, Black’s partner Mark Bolland, was head-hunted to become Press Secretary to the Prince of Wales, Tory peer Lord Wakeham of Enron quickly filled the post. There was not a word of protest from the press normally so keen to ensure that everyone else behaves impeccably…

Bolland, once revered for normalising Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla and the public, is now seen as a snitch for writing about his palace days in Murdoch’s News of the World. Meanwhile Sun Editor Rebekah Wade, who holidays with the two former press policemen, has issued a thinly veiled threat to Labour MP Clive Soley who had the temerity to question News International’s £500,000 payout and gagging order over alleged sexual harassment by former Sun editor Stuart Higgins.

The reek of hypocrisy seems particularly pungent, to journalists from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and Scandinavia, involved in recent PressWise assignments.

Quick to pick up on the pettiness and prurience of the British tabloids, they were puzzled that a gagging order had constrained publication of the ‘royal rumours’ which they could access on the electronic grapevine – and print in their own papers had they been so inclined… However they recognised that establishing the ‘truth’, or at least the facts, rather than simply publishing hearsay is what journalism is supposed to be about.

The papers have been full of justifiable criticism of Margaret Hodge for her inappropriate and injudicious remarks to the BBC about a survivor of abuse at the hands of her staff in Islington who had the temerity to question her suitability to be Children’s Minister. Yet the same papers were happy to publish similarly damaging remarks about former royal valet George Smith, for whose unsubstantiated allegations the Mail was willing to pay handsomely before the gag went on.

There were acres of newsprint devoted to the appointment of Rupert Murdoch’s son James as executive director of BSkyB, a company in which his father as chair has a 34 percent share. And plenty of space devoted to the disgrace of another Tory peer – Lord Black of the Telegraph – for keeping his share of £19million in ‘unauthorised payments’. His titles (but not his peerage) may be up for sale, with porn-tycoon Richard Desmond a likely bidder. Credited with turning around the fortunes of the Express group by turning on asylum seekers, Desmond has friends in Downing Street and makes his millions from sex (Asian Babes and Horny Housewives) and gossip (OK! and New!).

It makes for a potent if unsavoury mix, little of which is likely to endear British journalism to any audience. Yet, in our view, it is vital to build trust between journalists and the public they serve. PressWise is seeking alliances to promote dialogue between the public and the media, and to strengthen the resolve of journalists who recognise that press freedom is a responsibility they exercise on behalf of the public, not a licence for their bosses to make money at every one else’s expense.

Mike Jempson
Director, The PressWise Trust

Guy Black will not be handling political complaints while he works out his notice at the PCC. However he may soon be well placed to advise the wife of PCC chair Sir Christopher Meyer who is looking for a Tory seat in parliament.

(Bulletin No 93)

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