Early this morning I read the transcript of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s speech to the annual conference of the Society of Editors. What has captured my attention is his views on privacy. On his own admission, Dacre knows that “sensation sells papers”. That has clearly been the basis for his particular brand of journalism over the decades and lies at the heart of his belief that newspapers have some god-given right to routinely invade people’s privacy.
Dacre is, of course, bristling at Justice Eady’s ruling in the Max Mosely case earlier this year. The problem is that his “moral” stance on Mosley’s activities, which let’s not forget were consensually agreed by adults and hurt no one, is out of step with modern society. When the Mosley story broke, most ordinary people said “so what?”. They were not outraged or appalled. No children or animals were involved. Arguably, the only person hurt was Mrs Mosley, who was unaware of her husband’s proclivities. And she would not have known had the News of the World not published.
Unlike red-top editors, I don’t share the view that it is ok for the press to invade privacy. Dacre has regularly attacked Justice Eady’s ruling, claiming that it is bringing a privacy law in by the back door. Well, yes it is. Sort of. The tabloids were warned for years to get their house in order and failed to. Coupled with a fairly ineffective Press Complaints Commission that has little power over newspapers’ transgressions, it was only a matter of time before privacy issues were brought to the courts.
The public mood has shifted and while the public still has an appetite for celebrity-led gossip in the press at the same time it has made it clear that the tabloids regularly overstep the mark. What Dacre describes as “perverted, depraved, the very abrogation of civilised behaviour” was considered by Eady to be “unconventional” and the public see as commonplace – viz. the hundreds of thousands of pairs of fluffy handcuffs Ann Summers sells every year.
No one apart from F1 fans had heard of Max Mosley before his privacy was invaded. Tabloid editors have regularly confused the public interest with the interest of the public. Dacre’s speech continues that error.
The fact is, a privacy law will not, in my opinion, prevent journalists and newspapers carrying out serious investigative journalism where there is a genuine public interest. It will not stop bona fide investigations into corrupt company directors, backhanders being passed to government ministers, and trafficking rings or drug smugglers. And Dacre is, in any case, twisting Eady’s words – Eady had gone on record as saying that a privacy law should be drawn up by parliament.
Listening to the ensuing debate on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, I was most amused at Sun managing editor Graham Dudman’s stuttering attempts to support Dacre. He contradicted himself several times on the press’ right to invade privacy and managed to claim that parliament should determine case law (er, that’s for the courts to decide, Mr Dudman) and was forced to agree with John Humphrys when he pointed out that there was no reason why papers could not challenge any privacy rulings in court.
Dacre would like to turn the clock back to the 1950s, a time when women stayed at home to bring up their 2.4 children, the working class tugged their forelocks and divorce was socially damning. He would do well to remember that the world has changed massively in the last 60 years and the public has no desire to live in the past. The Mail looks increasingly irrelevant among newspapers and if a full-blown privacy law ever does become a reality, it and the other red-tops will have only themselves to blame.