Journalists tend to receive a bad press and, unfortunately, often with due cause. Recently in the UK the seedier side of news gathering was laid bare by the Leveson inquiry, which tended to prove what the public has always assumed: that some journalists will stop at nothing to get a story.
The hounding by massed ranks of reporters of ordinary citizens – who, frequently for tragic reasons, have suddenly become newsworthy – has long been a common, almost accepted, feature of British journalism. It came as far less of a surprise than was generally portrayed when some reporters (primarily but not exclusively from the News of the World ) were found to have taken things a step further and used criminal means, such as hacking phones and paying police officers, to gather inside information.
The revelations of such criminal activity provided ample reason for a public inquiry into how sections of the British media conduct their business. However, let us not pretend that the setting-up of the Leveson inquiry was motivated entirely by a desire to protect the public from unwarranted or illegal press intrusion. A host of agendas was at play, revenge and self- preservation prominent among them.
It is bordering on rank dishonesty for politicians to pretend it would be ordinary members of the public, rather than themselves, who stand to benefit most from a severe limiting of the freedom of the press. Life would be so much easier for elected representatives if they didn't have to worry quite so much about the media being able to stick its nose into their extracurricular affairs. There is a seemingly endless list of British MPs whose political careers have been curtailed or ended after their involvement in illegal or extracurricular activities was exposed by the media. Only last month, thanks in large part to an investigation by the Sunday Times , former UK energy secretary Chris Huhne was sentenced to eight months in prison for committing perjury.
The desire for revenge must have been strong among many MPs. It can hardly be coincidental that some of those who have complained most bitterly in recent months about press intrusion were found to have abused their parliamentary allowance and expense entitlements in an investigation initiated by the Daily Telegraph in 2009. The subsequent police inquiry led to various members of parliament being prosecuted, and some sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
Celebrities vs limelight
Like politicians, celebrities also want to have it both ways with the media. At the outset of their careers, wannabe celebrities would kill for a column inch or two, or a couple of minutes on television. But once they have begun to fulfil their ambitions, most have a change of heart and, unless they have a project to promote, their demand is for privacy. It was no surprise that various well-known actors were to the fore of the campaign for tighter control of the British press; and given previous newspaper coverage of their private habits and activities, no surprise either at some of the personalities involved.
Inadvertently, Leveson exposed another less than edifying journalistic trait: po-faced hypocrisy. Some of the newspapers most eager to denigrate the News of the World and its parent organisation, News International, were subsequently revealed to have themselves knowingly employed people who were involved in phone tapping or bribing officials for access to private information. In the often cutthroat world of media competition, seldom is an opportunity missed to wound a competitor.
This would seem to apply even to the BBC which before, during and after Leveson acted as though unofficial chief prosecutor of News International. The BBC must surely have been motivated in some part by its fear of News Corporation succeeding in a takeover bid for BSkyB, and the heightened competition this would bring. The bid was launched in 2010, but withdrawn in 2011 because of the phone-hacking scandal.
Possibly most hypocritical of all is the public, which has an insatiable appetite for news but holds in contempt those who spend their professional lives trying to feed that appetite. Too often ignored is the other side to the media. One far removed from phone-tapping and salacious gossip, where journalists take enormous risks to keep their public informed.
Last week, four reporters were kidnapped in northern Syria. Currently, Syria is the most dangerous place on earth for journalists, 36 of whom have been killed there during the past 16 months (according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) and many others kidnapped. (The exact number of kidnappings is not available as families prefer as little publicity as possible.)
The International Press Institute estimates that during the same period 132 journalists were killed while working abroad and numerous others kidnapped. Many journalists will indeed do almost anything to deliver on-the-spot reports and inside stories, and this often includes putting their lives at risk.