Last week the Press Complaints Commission delivered two judgments which, taken together, seem highly perplexing. It exonerated the News of the World for paying £10,000 to a convicted criminal who was implicated in the alleged plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham. And it censured the Guardian for paying £720 to a former criminal for writing an article about life in prison alongside Jeffrey Archer. As a result of this second ruling, the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, has reportedly blown several gaskets and has had to be soothed in a darkened room.
The News of the World’s escape is fortunate, to say the least. Readers may remember the case. The paper’s legendary sleuth Mazher Mahmood (he who likes dressing up as a sheikh) asked a 27-year-old Kosovan parking attendant called Florim Gashi to find him a story. Florim did. He came up with a plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham, and produced tapes in which he and his pals are heard discussing the idea in a rather lacklustre way. Some people may think that it would have been an extremely good idea if Victoria had been permanently removed from our shores, but that is beside the point. There was, it seems, no plan to kidnap her. Nevertheless, acting on information supplied to them by the News of the World and Florim, the police swooped on the suspected gang and banged up five innocent men for several months until a judge brought an end to the trial. I must say it is very difficult to see how the News of the World was not guilty of something rather serious, though, as I wrote several weeks ago, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were equally at fault in bringing a prosecution.
The Guardian’s misdemeanour seems minor by comparison. Last October the ghastly Jeffrey Archer (whom this magazine has valiantly defended) published some prison diaries which were serialised in the Daily Mail. The Mail did not pay Archer, and gave some money to charity. Not wishing to let go the opportunity of kicking a Tory when he is down, the Guardian commissioned a writer and former criminal called John Williams to do a very long article about his time in prison in which Lord Archer played a central role. It was not an altogether flattering piece. The Press Complaints Commission disagreed with the Guardian’s defence that the article was in the public interest, and censured the paper for paying a former criminal, which is contrary to the PCC’s code. The intention is that former criminals should not benefit financially from glorifying their own crimes.
Mr Rusbridger, as I say, had to be roped down by colleagues. There was a ballistic first leader in last Friday’s Guardian. The editors of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent expressed outrage almost equal to Mr Rusbridger’s. An editorial in the Independent was, if anything, even more thunderous than that in the Guardian. ‘It is surprising that the Commission should not recognise the difference between a large sum of money for a scandal sheet and a standard fee for serious journalism.’ This was perhaps a little sententious even by the standards of the Independent’s leader column. Was Mr Williams’s article serious journalism? I would say that it was published for the perfectly understandable, even commendable, motive of striking back at Jeffrey Archer. Very possibly such an impulse should be regarded as being in the public interest, but one can understand why the Press Complaints Commission should have taken a narrower view.
Behind this row there is a feeling among broadsheet editors that the PCC is weighted in favour of the tabloids. It is pointed out that Guy Black, the Commission’s director, is a close friend of Rebekah Wade, formerly editor of the News of the World and now editor of the Sun. Charles Moore, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, has called for Mr Black’s resignation. The PCC, however, appears uncowed. It has asked the Guardian for copies of columns written by Erwin James, a pseudonym, about prison. Mr James is doing life, and his pieces, which are much praised in some quarters, appear regularly in the Guardian. Mr Rusbridger has issued the threat that if the PCC prevents the Guardian from running further pieces by Mr James, it will pull out of the Press Complaints Commission. Other newspapers might follow, and self-regulation would be dead.
All the diplomatic skills of the PCC’s new chairman, the urbane Sir Christopher Meyer, would seem to be called for. It would be regrettable if the Commission fell apart. It might be replaced by a statutory authority less sympathetic to the freedom of the press. Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent, has flirted with the idea of such an authority. My suspicion is that Mr Black and his deputy Tim Toulmin may be deliberately aggravating Mr Rusbridger by poking sticks through the bars of his cage. They could not have hoped for a better response.
There is, in fact, a case for arguing that by paying Mr Williams the Guardian was in technical breach of the code. I fear it may also be in the case of Erwin James. Perhaps this clause in the code should be redrawn. The truth is that the Guardian thinks the clause exists to prevent the red-top tabloids from paying thousands of pounds to ex-cons. It cannot understand that it should find itself the victim of rules intended to constrain the likes of the News of the World, while that paper goes scot-free on what seems a more serious charge. Its attitude is that of the well-dressed man who, finding himself stopped by the police in Mayfair, suggests that they would be better employed chasing real criminals in the East End. Instead of emitting clouds of steam, Mr Rusbridger would do himself more justice if he used lofty irony. He should thank the Press Complaints Commission for having helpfully pointed out that his paper was in technical breach of the code, and welcome the prospect of a discussion about the highly esteemed work of Erwin James.
On June 23 Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, faxed a letter to Helen Minsky, who works on the Daily Mail’s Nigel Dempster column. Unfortunately his office also faxed the letter in error to the diary column of the London Evening Standard. It shows Mr Campbell in a characteristic light. First he upbraids Ms Minksy for gatecrashing a party for the Leukemia Research Fund, seemingly forgetting his own past as a swashbuckling red-top tabloid journalist. He then writes that he had assumed that he was ‘talking to the wife of a friend who was there to support the charity, not the representative of a news-paper which would, frankly, be the last on any list of newspapers I would speak to at such an event’. He finally says that if Ms Minsky keeps quiet about what was said to her, he will not pass on her comments about her own newspaper.
Pompous, bullying and threatening, as you might expect. But what was said to Ms Minsky? My guess is that Mr Campbell’s partner, Fiona Millar, who is thought to be leaving the employ of Cherie Blair, may have said some disobliging things about her boss.