Through a lens, darkly
Media intrusion into celebrities’ lives has escalated, precipitated by the development of new technology. But how far is ‘too far’?
The Leveson Inquiry has heard from at least 28 public figures who claim investigative journalism has gone way beyond the bounds of decency and bordered on the criminal. Will press laws now be tightened to the point of censorship?
The inquiry was promised in July 2011, when the News of the World (NotW) scandal broke and Prime Minister David Cameron pledged an investigation into invasive press ‘techniques’.
Lord Justice Leveson opened the hearings on Monday 14 November 2011, saying, ‘The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?’
As ET speculated in its story ‘End of the World’, published in September, the NotW was not the only paper to be found guilty of overstepping the line between good, investigative journalism and invasion of privacy.
Many other agencies — leading national papers, television and the internet (including Twitter) — have been brought into the fray.
Actress Sienna Miller told the inquiry how she had suspected her family members of leaking personal details to the press, to the extent that trust within her own family group had broken down.
Author J. K. Rowling told the inquiry that ‘investigative’ journalists had gone beyond the pale when one hack dared to slip a letter into her daughter’s school bag. Singer Charlotte Church said she has sometimes found press coverage ‘utterly horrifying and devastating to those around me’.
Clive James, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said, ‘Celebrity was no part of any bargain [the McCanns] had ever made, and here they were, stuck in the worst of it, with dumb but inventive journalists trying to pin on them the disappearance of their own child’.
Media intrusion is not new, nor did it come about solely in the age of the internet, street cameras and mobile phones. In 1993, an article by Ian Ward, published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, spoke of a link between the media and lack of respect for public figures.
He called this ‘media intrusion theory’, claiming ‘media intrusion theory holds the advent of electronic media, especially television, has accelerated or even precipitated party decline’.
Such intrusion is indeed a two-edged sword. While the media can be used to bring down party hopefuls such as Herman Cain in the US, it can also shed a light on institutional corruption. The Telegraph uncovered the expenses scandal, which forced a necessary sea-change in the way politicians accounted for their expenses.
And it’s not only politicians that need to be kept in check. The ‘Fake Sheikh’ reporter, who spent 20 years working for the NotW, is alleged to have brought more than 250 criminals to justice and exposed practices such as match-fixing in the worlds of snooker, cricket, football and boxing.
Public figures have a duty to behave responsibly and ethically and do their jobs in a way that brings honour to their profession, whether they are policemen, politicians or popular artists.
A role model should not be abusing cocaine, fiddling expenses or taking ‘bungs’ for deliberately flunking goals. Matthew 5:14-16 tells Christians in particular that, ‘A city set on a hill cannot be hidden’. And this is true in the secular world too; a public figure can influence millions for good or evil.
If certain kinds of wrongdoing are discovered, people have a right to know, so that parents can protect their children from exposure to such individuals, or perhaps boycott a certain place until the wrongdoing there is put right.
Exposure by the press has brought in new laws to tie up loopholes and bring perpetrators to justice. If the freedom of the press to investigate is curtailed, then many illegal practices may never see the light of day and will remain unchecked.
However, if left to their own devices, those using phone-hacking, stalking, trespass and other questionable methods will continue to plague innocent celebrities and victims such as the Payne family and the McCanns.
We won’t hear the results of the inquiry until much later this year; it is still considering issues related to the press and the public (module 1) until the end of January.
What we do need are proper checks and balances, so that a free press can remain just that — free — but not to the exclusion of acting in a moral and responsible manner.
The words ‘fair and accurate’ in libel laws have recently been changed to ‘honest and accurate’. This is not just a key maxim for any reporter, in whatever field of journalism, but a legal requirement; and we should never forget that.
‘What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops’ (Luke 12:3).
The author is also news editor for a Financial Times Group publication