A non-partisan journal of the left.

A Word in Your Shell-like

Thu 19th Jul 2012

It is a truism – and not merely for the present generation – that the older one grows, the more keenly one becomes aware of the decline of the subtler virtues: modesty, patience, succour, courtesy, wit, benevolence, deference, altruism, understatement, calm, gratitude, discretion, particularity, respect, gentleness, acknowledgment. But one of these deft qualities may be in decline to an unprecedented degree in our time. That is the notion of confidence.

I do not of course mean that term in the third definition ascribed to it in the OED: “Assurance, boldness, fearlessness, arising from reliance (on oneself, on circumstances, on divine support, etc.)” – God knows, modern man has enough of that sort of confidence. I do not either intend the second OED definition: “The feeling sure or certain of a fact or issue; assurance, certitude; assured expectation”.

The OED’s first definition brings me closer to what I mean but not there yet: “The mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing; firm trust, reliance, faith”. No, I need to scroll all the way down to meaning number six before we have it: “The confiding of private or secret matters to another; the relation of intimacy or trust between persons so confiding; confidential intimacy”. That is the desirable (even necessary) state that seems to me presently to be in its death throes.

Much dismaying and even shaming material has floated to the surface of the Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. But little before or since has resonated so sonorously – at least as far as I am concerned – as the testimony of Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The Sun from 1981 to 1994.

Robert Jay, QC for the Inquiry, asked Mr MacKenzie whether he had “any regard for privacy”. The sometime editor replied “not really, no”. He added that his general view was that “most things, as far as I could see, should be published”.

In the six months since this characteristically supercilious dismissal of what you may have thought (and I certainly thought) was a right to which we were entitled, I have hoped that some enterprising investigator would take Mr MacKenzie at his word and publish on the internet everything that could be hacked, stolen or otherwise accessed of the same Mr MacKenzie’s dealings with his physician, his accountant, his mistresses, his solicitor, his analyst, his media consultant, his family, his investment advisor, his private detective, his PA and his clap clinic. I have been disappointed.

Kelvin MacKenzie evidently believes that nothing confided between one person and another is so sacrosanct that it cannot be broadcast to anyone nosey enough to listen in. And indeed he may well have his finger more firmly on the public pulse than I do. After all, Mr MacKenzie has made himself a multimillionaire by rootling in the mire and shoving the results under the public nose. I have assuredly not made myself a multimillionaire by preferring the primrose path.

Two well-worked notions have been very much in play at Leveson: “the freedom of the press” and “the public’s right to know”. Both of these are, in my opinion, cant phrases, not to say meretricious notions. The press is no freer in Britain than it is in North Korea. It may not be controlled by the whim of a dynasty of oligarchs who set their own rules unless – and there may well be an argument for doing so – you equate the Murdochs with the Kims. But the idea that the press is in any way open is ludicrous. Try offering a beautifully turned Trotskyite critique of society to the Daily Mail or a non-ironic diatribe of political incorrectness to The Observer or a Keynesian economic analysis to The Daily Telegraph and see how far you get.

The so-called right to know is a more nebulous concept. Even so, I suggest that the fuzzy area in the middle is not as extensive as all that. Most would concur that the electorate is entitled to be informed how the government spends revenues raised through general taxation. Most would demur at the opportunity to be alerted as to whether a relationship between two unknown adults had been consummated. Between these poles lurks an argument, but an argument where a good deal of common sense might be expected to hold sway.

Journalists like Kelvin MacKenzie reckon that any journalist protected by a billionaire proprietor ought to be able to publish anything he likes, whether it is true, half-true or a pack of lies. Since the hacking by journalists of the mobile phone that belonged to the teenaged murder victim Milly Dowler, such a view has enjoyed less wide subscription. Even those readers whose appetite for cheap thrills and the fantasy of privileged information is not easily sated found (or affected to find) that particular piece of privacy-invasion distasteful.

But it is too easy to berate the tabloids and the seedy hacks working for editors of the Kelvin MacKenzie type. Like most other concerned citizens, I take my hat off to Nick Davies for his dogged pursuit of the phone-hacking story and to The Guardian for supporting him. Without Davies there would have been no Leveson, no “humblest day of my life” for Rupert Murdoch and no prospect of reform of press regulations.

But it was also The Guardian that published and led the British cheerleading for Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks revelations. I may have missed something here but I have always struggled to understand the fine moral distinction between the publication of private conversations intercepted by hacking telephones and the publication of private conversations intercepted by a variety of other breaches of the law.

The chattering classes had an indulgent snigger over the banal indiscretions of diplomats and other dignitaries, much as the goggling classes consume the leftovers of the supposed stars of “reality television”, pop, soaps and movies. But for either Assange or The Guardian to talk up this paltry exercise as some kind of public service really beggared belief.

For some reason impenetrable to me, various public figures associated with causes (some even with respectably left-wing credentials) went in to bat for Assange when it seemed that the authorities in Washington would come looking for a perfectly foreseeable revenge. I make no defence of the American authorities’ treatment of Bradley Manning. He has been detained for more than two years with no imminent prospect of a trial. There is evidence that the conditions of his incarceration give rise to concern. And there must be some doubt as to whether his trial, if it ever begins, will be as just as a civil hearing might be expected to be.

On the other hand, Bradley Manning is the author of his own misfortune. As an intelligence analyst in the US army, he knew the risks he ran in passing classified information to WikiLeaks. The argument that he is some kind of hero of the people or martyr to a repressive state is pretty threadbare.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London hoping to be granted asylum. This is to prevent his extradition from Britain to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning over complaints of a sexual nature made against him by two women. His argument is that the US authorities, who cannot detain him in Britain, would be able to do so in Sweden.

Assange’s political supporters in London have been led into two embarrassments. In recent days, they have been left with stiff bills for the bail that Assange has forfeited by disappearing into the embassy. Earlier they found themselves obliged to discount the Swedish sexual complaints as a put-up job. This is an undesirable position for self-respecting enlightened people to have to occupy. The left has a poor record on sexual politics. It was quite as slow to comprehend and embrace the women’s movement and the gay movement as was the right. It can hardly wish to be seen now as discounting claims of rape and non-consensual sex.

I vividly recall an elephant trap fallen into by the admirable and well-intentioned playwright Trevor Griffiths, an old IMG man. It was at an Edinburgh Television Festival, back in the 1970s when that beanfeast ran all week rather than over the elongated weekend that it now occupies; and when sex was still something that straight men thought was pretty straightforward.

Trevor was on a platform panel, the first of the day. I had reason to know before he took his seat that he was nursing a savage hangover. He’d barely begun his contribution to the discussion when he found himself ambushed by three women in the hall demanding that he justify the portrayal of women in his work. Trevor stumbled through a fractious confrontation, trying to improvise an argument that he clearly hadn’t formed before, as the misery deepened on his face. I suspect that it wasn’t a mistake he let himself make again.

Ken Loach, John Pilger and other undoubted heroes of the left can hardly rejoice that their man Assange is mired in an unseemly sexual dispute or that their support for his attempts to avoid facing trial in the States is so dependent on his own questionable reliability. But I would argue that the cause to which they have harnessed themselves is one of limited value.

All of us – whether we are journalists or film-makers or schoolteachers or diplomats or toiling in pretty much any walk of life – need to feel that we can communicate openly with trusted colleagues and confide in those who share our values and attitudes. An email written to an old chum would be cast in different terms – perhaps in comprehensively different terms – if the writer expected a third party to see it, let alone for it to be circulated on the internet.

For that reason I have a certain sympathy for David Cameron, whose trite and somewhat infantile emails to Rebekah Brooks were written for her eyes alone, not for those of the Leveson Inquiry and the slavering press. Similarly, I quite see why Tony Blair now regrets that he was persuaded to bring in the Freedom of Information Act. If a politician’s every passing scribble is to be placed under a searchlight and interrogated by commentators and newspaper readers who have no knowledge of the background to each of the scribbles, government becomes impossible. And by extension, every human activity becomes impossible if it has to pass some random and unpredictable test of credibility, consistency and correctness imposed by licensed spies, snoopers and listeners-in.

During the 2010 general election, Gordon Brown was badly damaged by being overheard to slag off Mrs Gillian Duffy, a Rochdale voter whom he had encountered before news cameras while on walkabout. Unaware that a Sky News mic was still attached to his lapel, Brown assumed that he could only be heard by his aides in the limousine to which he had retreated after the session.

Later on Radio 2, Jeremy Vine took undisguised pleasure in playing the Sky recording to Brown. The PM clapped his hands over his face and became abject, before stumbling through a sort of apology and then mounting a damage-limitation exercise that included the excruciating humiliation of marching to Mrs Duffy’s door, accompanied by two or three thousand news crews, to offer his humble obeisance, this latter thankfully not in view of cameras.

In Brown’s shoes, I confidently declare that I would have played it entirely differently. I would have begun by excoriating Sky News for recording a private conversation and for circulating it to the rest of the media. I would then have excoriated Vine and the BBC for accepting stolen goods, for ambushing the prime minister in this way and for lining up cameras to video his reaction during a radio broadcast. I would have stoutly refused to countenance any kind of apology to Mrs Duffy, pointing out that it was Sky News that was responsible for circulating a disobliging description of her. I would have pointed out that the conventions observed in the ministerial motor are neither provided for the enlightenment of the media and the public, nor to be understood or interpreted by them, and that it may well be that a tired and overstretched politician needs to blow off to trusted aides without any regard for truth, fairness or decency and that such a safety valve is no one else’s business.

I would have concluded by announcing that, if returned to office, I would have seen to it that all media offices be wired up so that confidential conversations be made available to anyone who wished to listen in to them. And I would have told Jeremy Vine that he was an opportunist charlatan who ought to look for a respectable career.

Four or five years earlier, Brown had again been caught up in a piece of media malice when the professional impersonator Rory Bremner managed to get through on the phone to the then Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and pass himself off as the Chancellor sufficiently convincingly that he chatted to her for some minutes. It was a gambit he had earlier tried with Peter Hain but the latter had quickly grown suspicious and Bremner put the phone down. It conjures for me the image of a little boy ringing a stranger’s doorbell and then running away.

Bremner – and indeed the rest of the media – seemed to think that this irresponsible jape was somehow admirable. The Observer (The Guardian's sister paper) judged that “the spoof provides a fascinating glimpse into how senior figures really feel about each other”. Rather, I would argue, it shows how cavalier is the infotainment industry in seeking sensation, regardless of whether it risks compromising policy, imperiling a minister’s standing and perhaps career, even endangering national security.

During the 2008 American election, a Canadian radio presenter managed to get through to the private line of the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Not versed in international statesmen, Palin was easily persuaded that she was talking to President Sarkozy of France. Whatever you think of Palin, it’s at best a lousy trick and at worst a dangerous precedent.

None of us desires to be badly governed, even if the governing party is not one we support. By making it impossible for individuals with significant decisions to feel that they can risk communicating candidly and confidentially with their colleagues, those who prate about the freedom of the press are damaging the interests of all of us.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and not necessarily those of the LPJ
You must be logged in to post comments on the site or you can use Facebook above.