UK media corruption exposed John Waters


If John Leslie had killed himself in the past 10 months, the media ratpack would have taken it as an admission of guilt, writes John Waters

When a government-employed scientist commits suicide following a murky involvement with the media, the same media decide he is the victim of malevolent forces in government. Discuss.

The quality of media truth available to an individual depends utterly on the usefulness of that individual to the media. There are still some exceptions to this increasingly iron rule, a handful of newspapers and broadcasting organisations which can be, in some or most matters, depended on to seek out the truth; but for the most part media are concerned with the presentation of material in a way calculated to excite, for profit, the baser public emotions.

The publicist Max Clifford has offered some free advice to Leslie as to how he should now conduct himself with regard to the media. Leslie, he said, had made a mistake in selling his story to a single newspaper, the Daily Express, which would alienate other media and invite further hostility. Since Leslie now needs all the support he can get in order to rehabilitate himself with public opinion, Mr Clifford argued, he should set about mending fences with his tormentors.

I see his point, but in other spheres of life we would refer to this kind of thing as a protection racket. When a public discussion can take for granted that the media are vindictive and indifferent to the truth, we must accept that one of the key institutions of democracy is shamelessly, irredeemably corrupt. This is still more shocking when one considers a secondary point of Mr Clifford's: that there are two courts, the law and public opinion, and that the media provide the sole route to the latter.

Consider, too, that the only monitoring of this virulently dishonest institution is whatever jealous vigil one media group chooses to exercise over another. And even this is nowadays likely to arise from market rivalry rather than principle, as most journalists display more loyalty to the vested interests of their employers or profession than to the principles of their calling.

And so, an abusive, debased media clamour for more "rights" and "freedoms", hollering about the "draconian" restrictions imposed by defamation legislation (in truth, a limited and inefficient instrument of justice). If another public institution had unleashed such a massive wrongdoing as occurred in the Leslie case, there would be a clamour now for a public inquiry, and most of the clamouring would emanate from the media.

In this newspaper last Friday, media commentator Roy Gleenslade repeated the journalistic dictum that no control of media is possible " without preventing them also from their proper public service role, holding governments and institutions to account".

If a senior police officer declared it impossible to prevent his colleagues beating confessions out of suspects without damaging the force's ability to obtain convictions, there would be outrage, mainly in the press.

The late British Tory MP, Mr Alan Clarke, in a brilliant final article published posthumously in the London Independent in September 1999, unmasked the nature of societal bully-boy that is the modern newspaper, with its camouflaging of expedient prurience as high-minded pursuit of the public interest. Mainly, he outlined, this means sex, which "by its combination of power simultaneously to arouse voyeuristic curiosity and puritanical indignation, is the mainspring".

Celebrity, another staple, is the cast of characters with which the media pushers create the daily dramas to which the public's addiction has been carefully cultivated, and these dramas require a steady supply of scapegoats.

"Anyone who has sought, and received, publicity," wrote Alan Clarke, "enters that long and vaulted corridor in the temple whose priesthood, waiting by the altar, are ready at their own choosing to practise and enjoy the ritual of human sacrifice". His article was headed, "Why Journalists Disgust Me".

What matters, increasingly, is not whether something is true, but whether it can be published with impunity or at a cost less than can be recouped through increased business. Spouting virtuous rhetoric about media standards, editors and journalists are intent mainly upon vying with their competitors to produce the best comic.

Broadsheet newspapers pretend they are above the mainstream sewer, but, with regard to many matters now preoccupying our media, this is difficult to sustain.

Such is the public's addiction to the celebrity soap opera that few media operators are prepared to stand aloof. Hence, so-called "quality" newspapers don the prophylactic of "the public interest", or invoke the "media issues" pertaining to a particular story, and then get stuck right in.

Stylistic nuances apart, the chief distinction emerging between "tabloid" and "quality" is hypocrisy.