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John Jenkins Nov 11


The November column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


What kind of free press do we want?

by John Jenkins

What kind of a free Press do we writers want? A totally free Press left with its own self-governing body for standards of behaviour?

Or a Press without any restrictions other than the existing laws of libel?

Or a Press subject to government and legal censorship?

Think carefully before you give an opinion, for this is not a black and white matter. There are huge benefits in having a totally free Press but there are also drawbacks.

There are also disastrous drawbacks in having a Press subjected to Government control and censorship.

With a censored Press you can end up like Stalinist Russia, which had two government controlled newspapers: Izvestia and Pravda. These words meant truth and news. Hence the Muscovites used to joke: there is no news in the truth and there is no truth in the news.

Stanley Baldwin, regarded by some as a safe pair of hands as a Prime Minister and by others as a pusillanimous ditherer, said that press lords were like prostitutes – they wanted power without responsibility. He was referring in particular to those two newspaper titans of the day, Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail group and Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express. Both achieved more for Britain than Baldwin ever did.

Another wit used to proclaim:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist,
But seeing what the man will do unbribed,
There’s no occasion to.

This debate has come about of course during the furore over phone-tapping which led to the closure of the News of the World and huge payments made by Rupert Murdoch’s company, News International, to alleged victims of the phone tapping.

Now we have the Leveson inquiry which in due course will report to the Government. The good Lord Leveson has been listening to evidence from all quarters as he delves into the word of news.

I am left with the unmistakeable impression that this has nothing to do with whether or not we should have a free Press but is a form of revenge from MPs who by and large were shown to be dishonest in the presentation of their expenses to Parliament.

In case you have forgotten the statistics, let me remind you. Out of 646 Members of parliament only 50 minimised their expenses – and even one of those, the saintly Vince Cable, has just been fined for not completing his tax return correctly.

This was not petty cash we were talking about. Some of them invented fictitious mortgages which they expected you and me to pay for, another claimed for clearing his moat while another built a house on his pond for the ducks.

Yet another had to pay back £80,000, others - but too few – were sent to jail.
Since that day members of all parties have been looking for a big stick to beat the Press with.

The phone-tapping gave them a great excuse because stupidly the News of the World used phone-tapping to check on victims of crime. They could have got this information - if necessary - from orthodox reporting methods. And do not think that the News of the World was the only newspaper to employ these tactics.

Equally, newspapers have helped many an investigation where the police have been unable to trace criminals or solve crimes.

Modern technology has already made phone-tapping out of date. If you own a smart phone for a reasonable price you can buy the kit to monitor anybody’s e mails. Dodgy politicians, errant husbands or wives and other miscreants can be easily monitored.

Not only does the march of IT progress make the phone-tapping inquiry redundant, other advances in media platforms for citizen journalists mean the days of newspapers as we know them are numbered.

Soon we will have one tabloid paper - call it the Sun-Mirror, one middle of the road paper – call it the Mail-Express and one heavyweight paper, call it The Times Telegraph. This is not good news for freelancers.

It is worth quoting some of the evidence given by leading journalists to the Leveson inquiry.

The most trenchant came from Kelvin MacKenzie, a former successful editor of the Sun and now a columnist on the Daily Mail. In typical fashion he cast doubts on Leveson producing anything worthwhile and points out that politicians’ behaviour to press lords varies from arse kissing to arse kicking, depending on when they want their support. That, in my experience, is a pretty fair summing up.

Of course, super injunctions and the courts are being wrongly used to prevent the truth coming out in the public domain. If some successful sportsman is held up as a shining light to our young people and endorses products from football boots to hair restorer, I think it is a matter of public interest to correct the image if he is a lying, cheating, adulterous, tax-dodging, drug-taking imbecile.

Not that any of our shining young men qualify in all categories.

And if Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Andrew Marr and Jeremy Clarkson want to appear whiter than white they must mend their ways, admit they are human and not hide behind the law. Marr and Clarkson have admitted their errors.

The Associate Editor of the Sun – and a shrewd political commentator - Trevor Kavanagh points out that but for the Free Press in the United States Dominic Strauss Khan’s conduct, widely known among the chattering classes in Paris, would not have come to light. It was deemed under French law to be of no concern to the people who were going to be asked to elect him President.

Kavanagh makes the reasonable point that if people are going to persuade us to part with our cash or give them our votes we should know something about their characters.

Would we have wanted to have John Stonehouse, Jeremy Thorpe or John Profumo in power if we had known what they were really like?

Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian claimed to Leveson that the laws in Britain actually hindered investigative reporting and pointed out that in a world league table we came in joint 28th place when it came to freedom of information.

Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, put things in perspective. He roundly condemned phone tapping but pointed out that:

‘No British cities were looted, nobody died, and no banks were in danger of collapsing and elected politicians continued to steal from the public. And moreover the nation did not go to war.’

And yet the Leveson inquiry has wider powers than any inquiry into these problems.

Dacre sums up neatly:

‘Am I alone in detecting the rank smell of hypocrisy and revenge in the political class’s current moral indignation over a British Press that dared to expose their greed and corruption?’

Well, what do you think?

Talking of greed and corruption, did you read about the Pakistani cricketers?

After the jury were out for 17 hours at Southwark Crown Court in London they were found guilty of a match-fixing plot in a Test match against England and jailed.

Now, cricket authorities for years have suspected something like this, ever since the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje was implicated. So have the police. There were also some very strange happenings concerning a cricket tournament in the Middle East.

Suddenly the term ‘it’s not cricket’ seems to foreshadow something much more sinister than a batsman refusing to walk when he knows he’s edged the ball for a catch.

The trouble stemmed from the huge illegal betting scene on the Asian sub-continent.

Whether the cricket authorities were naïve in ignoring the implications, or whether they did not want publicity to harm potential television rights we shall never know, but the whole affair would have gone on – again and again – and unpunished, had it not been for some clever investigative reporting by a Sunday newspaper. That newspaper was the News of the World.

As we cannot trust our MPs or international cricketers I think we should be very careful of muzzling the Press.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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