For those of us who write for the tabloids, there’s something almost poetic about the crisis currently engulfing our more respectable rivals. Ever since the Guardian ‘exposed’ the News of the World for deleting Milly Dowler’s voicemails — a story that turned out to be wrong — we have had to endure the moral censure of the establishment. That is, senior politicians, judges, A-list celebrities and those members of our own profession who describe themselves as ‘serious’, which is code for Oxbridge-educated and liberal.
There’s no great mystery as to why they look down on muckraking journalists with such disdain. We’re common, vulgar little people who insist on pointing out their extramarital affairs and other misdemeanours, often involving the fraudulent use of taxpayers’ money. We also have an irritating habit of reminding them that their views on immigration, capital punishment and benefits are completely at odds with public opinion. Scribblers like us have been a thorn in the side of the ruling class since the English civil war, and parliament has made numerous attempts to control the fourth estate ever since.
The Milly Dowler affair was a perfect excuse to mount an assault on our freedom because it enabled the rich and powerful to harness the cause of state regulation to widespread public revulsion at the excesses of the redtops. The Leveson inquiry was duly set up and a succession of ‘expert’ witnesses were summoned to give evidence against the tabloids, including a high-minded organisation called the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It proposed that the state should be legally empowered to impose a ‘levy’ on the publishers of newspapers like the one I work for and the money given to the Bureau so it could continue its important work of investigating evil right-wing capitalists. Men like Rupert Murdoch, even though he was one of the men they wanted to subsidise their ‘public interest’ journalism.
Fast forward a year, and all those people who were denouncing the scandal sheets are themselves entangled in the biggest journalistic scandal of my lifetime, one that threatens the future existence of the largest and most powerful media organisation in the world. The people who’ve been tainted by this scandal — BBC mandarins, Guardian journalists, Tom Watson MP — are precisely those who were leading the charge against the tabloids. And at the centre of this web of ineptitude is the Bureau of Investigative Journalism itself. To cap it all, the scandal was precipitated by the overzealous pursuit of a suspected paedophile, which hitherto has always been cited as the absolute nadir of tabloid scare-mongering.
The karmic symmetry is almost too good to be true. Had Hugh Grant been enlisted by Newsnight to present the report, I would now be a firm believer in the existence of God.
OK, OK, it’s not quite perfect. I have to grudgingly acknowledge the role of the Guardian’s investigations team in exposing the accusations against Lord McAlpine as complete codswallop. Even so, the finger-waggers have suffered a humiliating, ignominious defeat. Ink-stained wretches like me will be able to taunt them about it for years.
The best thing about it is that it should make statutory regulation of the press less likely. All number of inquiries are now underway to discover how this balls-up was allowed to happen, but the answer seems obvious. The root cause is the asymmetry between a media platform that’s restricted by all sorts of rules and regulations and one that isn’t, i.e. Twitter. If the journalists responsible for the Newsnight report hadn’t been hemmed in by Britain’s libel and privacy laws, not to mention various codes of practice, both statutory and non-statutory, they would have planned to name Lord McAlpine in their report. That, in turn, would have meant McAlpine was given an opportunity to rebut the charges and, indeed, present the journalists with evidence of his innocence. At that point, they might have thought twice about broadcasting the allegations, but even if they’d gone ahead, the charges could have been disposed of by the Guardian the following day instead of a week later.
Instead, the journalists produced a nudge-nudge, wink-wink report, neglected to give the accused a right of reply, and the Twitterati did the rest. If the print media is subject to even further restrictions than it is at present, these sorts of mistakes are more likely to happen in future, not less. Lord Leveson, please take note.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012