HAS British journalism really improved? Or was the Leveson Inquiry just something to entertain us until business returned to normal while no one was looking?
I guess we are about to find out. The Minister for Civil Society announced on the eve of the Conservative Party conference that he was resigning because a Sunday newspaper was about to publish allegations about his private life.
This had all the hallmarks of a sting, and I wondered what might be the public interest that would justify such an action on the part of a newspaper. We soon found out.
I imagine most observers are more embarrassed than hostile to the ex-Minister. Sending intimate pictures of yourself over the internet is naïve and shows poor judgement.
But the journalist who stung Brooks Newmark had been phishing, had invented a character, lied in e-conversation and illicitly used photos of other women to pretend to be the woman he was pretending to be.
If this doesn’t count as entrapment, then what does? And to have such a ploy used to uphold a purist moral stance is at least questionable.
The defence used in such cases – and which got a bit of exposure during the Leveson process – is that the information derived is somehow in the public interest.
Of course, this assumes that the public interest is being served... rather than the prurient interest of the public being entertained. How would society be the poorer for not knowing what we now know as a result of the sting?
Well, following the Leveson Report, the body that has replaced the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) now faces its first serious task.
By publishing the sting on Brooks Newmark, is Trinity Mirror in breach of the code agreed by the Press? The newly-established Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is still run by the Press – one of the criticisms of its predecessor.
The Press continues to be judged by its own, and the ‘independence’ in its title does not yet convince sceptical observers or victims of press abuse. In the case before it, we will see how independent the new body really is.
The tragedy of all this is that the behaviours that led to the Leveson Inquiry being set up in the first place do not seem to have gone away.
The closure of the News of the World and the prosecution of prominent newspaper leaders seemed to offer an opportunity to clean out the stable. But, read Hack Attack – Nick Davies’s disturbing book on the phone hacking saga – and one questions whether drama and gesture actually changes behaviour and culture.
Set against this domestic business, however, is the crying need for good journalism in Britain. The bad cases hit the headlines (eventually), but we too easily take for granted the importance of excellent journalism.
We only know about what goes on in some parts of the world because journalists have the nerve to go to where the action is and report – in language and images that are comprehensible to the appropriate audience – what is going on. And many pay with their lives – 71 journalists have died as a result of reporting on the Syrian conflict alone over the last three years.
The sort of courage that compels individuals to risk their lives in pursuit of the real story (for example, potential genocide) is admirable and defies the comfortable cynicism of those who sit in armchairs complaining about the world.
Yet, this sort of reporting is not the norm, is it? We might want to ask where this sort of work sits in relation to the human interest gossip stuff that seems to sell newspapers and magazines at home.
Journalism cannot be identified solely in terms of foreign or crisis reporting – fast-moving, often dangerous, always provisional. Seen in this context, stinging an MP looks a bit cheap and easy.
It does, though, bring into sharp relief the need for good journalism at every level.
Social media allow immediate and unmediated reportage from everywhere. Except, of course, that all reportage – even images on Twitter from Tahrir Square – are mediated by the preferences, context, priorities and subjectivities of the person who posts it.
So, where is the place for intelligent and informed critical reflection on events? Contrary to popular assumption, not every opinion is valid. A good democracy needs a good, free Press.
The problem seems to be that the great British public prefers to read tittle-tattle about relative trivia, creating moral scapegoats that make the rest of us feel morally superior. We get the Press we pay for. If we want good journalism, we will have to pay for it.
The Right Reverend Nicholas Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.