Nick Cohen

‘It’s the newspapers I can’t stand’

‘It’s the newspapers I can’t stand’
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In Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day, Milne, an idealistic journalist, describes the limitations of newspapers, and then gives the best argument for press freedom I know of. ‘You don't have to tell me,’ he says to Ruth, the bored wife of a mining tycoon. ‘I know it better than you — the celebration of inanity, the way real tragedy is paraphrased into an inflationary spiral of hackneyed melodramas — Beauty Queen in Tug-of-Love Baby Storm... Tug-of-Love Baby Mum in Pools Win... Pools Man in Beauty Queen Drug Quiz. I know. It's the price you pay for the part that matters.

‘Junk journalism is the evidence that society has at least got one thing right, that there should be no one with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins.’

Notice Stoppard does not say that tabloids redeem themselves by running the occasional piece of serious news alongside the junk — they may or may not. Rather the absence of censors with the power to rule what is ‘responsible journalism’ allows good journalism to flourish. Give the state or whatever body Lord Justice Leveson recommends the right to ban ‘irresponsible writing’ rather than, say, defamatory writing, and you can guarantee that the authorities will not confine themselves to stopping ‘Beauty Queen in Tug-of-Love Baby Storm’ stories.

I could spend the rest of my life trying to put the argument for press freedom as well as Stoppard did. Unfortunately, few remember his speeches. The line everyone remembered when the show opened in 1978, and would cheer today if the National or another theatre had the wit to revive Night and Day, was Ruth’s response.

‘I’m with you on freedom of the press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.’

The solicitor/blogger David Allen Green has published an account of the lengths it went to silence Richard Horton. It is well worth reading, because it dissects an extraordinary act of spite. Horton was a Lancashire detective constable, who blogged under the name of ‘NightJack’ about his always unglamorous and often frustrating work. Horton not only had interesting subject matter but a rare talent as a writer. Read his posts — I recommend ‘Only 24 Hours to Crack the Case’ — and see how he describes a seedy world with a few strokes of the pen, and shows how hard it is for the police to solve serious crimes and how satisfied they are when they do it. The judges of the 2009 Orwell Prize knew good writing when they saw it and gave Horton their blogger award. He took readers ‘to the heart of what a policeman has to do’, they said. ‘By the first blogpost you were hooked, and could not wait to click on to the next one.’

NightJack had to preserve his anonymity because as a serving police officer he could not tell the public about his work without approval from his superiors. He was careful not to say where he was based or identify any of the criminals or victims of crime he met. His anonymity did not bother readers. What we got from NightJack was not a court report but an idea of how police officers worked.

No one minded except a Times journalist called Patrick Foster. He decided in 2009 that NightJack’s anonymity was an intolerable affront. The police officer had to be exposed.  Foster hacked NightJack’s Hotmail account — apparently by guessing the password — and discovered Horton was the author. After reading his reports, I should add that an ability to hack is Mr Foster’s only discernable talent — he’d been breaking into other people’s accounts since he was a student. In all other respects — as a writer, and as a man — he was Horton’s inferior.

Horton sought an injunction to stop the Times revealing his identity. Allen Green will give you the full details of the deceit that followed. In short, the Times knew that Foster had hacked the account, but pretended that he had worked out Horton’s identity from publicly available information, legally obtained. What the editor of the Times, James Harding, knew and when is unclear. But by the time the cozened judge had ruled that there were no grounds for stopping the Times publishing, Harding certainly knew the truth, but still decided to ‘expose’ Horton. As Allen Green puts it.

‘A person’s privacy had been invaded; a criminal offence appeared to have been committed; the High Court had been effectively misled; senior managers had pointed out the legal significance of all this in contemporaneous emails; and the person’s anonymity was to be irretrievably destroyed.  But the editor of the Times published the story anyway.’

The cynical wisdom is that editors run stories ‘just to sell newspapers’. But no one would have bought the Times to read the Horton ‘investigation’. ‘Detective PC no one has heard of writes blog’ is not a headline to make readers storm the newsagents. Foster justified himself by saying that he was exposing a charlatan. ‘The Orwell Prize judges did not know that he was also using the blog to disclose detailed information about cases he had investigated, which could be traced back to real-life prosecutions.’ If you cross-referred to reports of courts cases, he continued, you could discover which crimes Horton was discussing. Paul Waugh, then of the Evening Standard, said in response:

‘The damage that the Times inflicted was far worse than just threatening one honest copper with the loss of his career. It undermined any policeman who wanted to speak off the record, the lifeblood of decent crime reporting. It also undermined any whistleblowing blogger, any public servant who wanted to tell it as it is from the front line, without the filter of a dreaded “media and communications office”. Maybe one day the Times will apologise, but knowing newspaper office politics as I do, I suspect it never will.’

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Educated people in particular think there must be a rational explanation for everything — the Times must have been seeking readers or looking to right a wrong. They forget the power of motiveless malevolence. There is no rational explanation for the Times’ behaviour. It was pure malice. Horton was a successful writer, who was winning awards. But he wasn’t a member of the journalists’ club, so like a vicious boy, who tortures animals, it destroyed him, for no reason at all — just because it could.

I still believe in Stoppard’s defence of journalism; and still think we should remember Saul Bellow’s warning that ‘everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining’. But when ‘quality’ newspapers deny freedom of speech to others, they make the task of defending their freedom next to impossible. ‘The price you pay for the part that matters’ keeps on rising.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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