Paul Foot

Private parts

(October 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.157, October 1992, p.14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

David Mellor’s resignation marks the latest in a line of scandals that have spurred the government to take measures to curb the press. Everyone hates the tabloids, says Paul Foot, but a law to stop them won’t work

Horrified by disclosures in the newspapers about David Mellor and an actress, not to mention pictures of a near-naked Duchess of York, the government has resolved to ‘do something’ about the excesses of the press. The job itself has been farmed out to the Ministry of Heritage where the Secretary of State (and the man who masterminded John Major’s campaign for the Tory leadership) was the aforesaid David Mellor.

This has caused some embarrassment so the new ‘Privacy Bill’ (or whatever else it is called) has been passed over to Mellor’s junior, an apparently ‘safe’ gentleman from the shires called Robert Key. As Key drafts his bill, he gets plenty of helpful advice from the Labour Party, whose front-bencher on these matters, Clive Soley, is writing his own bill to protect the general public from the ravages of the gutter press. Soley makes it clear that his aim is not the same as that of the government. Their bill will protect only the rich and famous; his bill will concentrate on protecting ordinary folk who are treated by the media like dirt.

All these efforts are widely supported almost everywhere. Everyone hates the tabloid newspapers, especially the 12 million people who buy them every day. The capitalist press is rotten and corrupt. It breeds a specially nasty type of human rotweiler whose peculiar quality is to be as offensive as possible to anyone at all who might in some way assist towards ‘a good story’.

It is this offensive behaviour – bursting into peoples’ houses to seize photographs of dead relatives; making up quotations; tapping phones, half-kidnapping children and generally trampling over people, that earns for editors and journalists such universal contempt. It seems obvious that the media do have too much power and that the more preposterous manifestations of that power need to be cut down by law.

But what law? As soon as detailed proposals start to be spelt out, the doubts arise. Consider a law to protect privacy. Would it ban any photograph which had not been taken by permission? How would that apply to some of the great pictures – action pictures such as the man defying the tank in Tiananmen Square, or (from the sublime to the ridiculous) pictures of Fergie prancing with her financial adviser in a rich man’s garden? If no photographs are to be published unless they are taken with permission, the whole world would be a duller place. Certainly, the high and mighty (especially royalty) would much easier be able to maintain the consistency of their family values. If such a law is accompanied by a rider insisting that any without permission pictures be ‘in the public interest’, the question arises at once ‘what is in the public interest?’

In a class society, privacy is likely to be defined as important peoples’ privacy; public interest as rich peoples’ interest. Even if the law states specifically that that must not be so, the law will be enforced, as it always is, on class lines. Such a law, then, leaves most of us worse informed and certainly less amused even than we are now.

What about the other demand of the press reformers – a right of reply? Isn’t it obviously fair that anyone attacked in the press should have a right to put their own point of view in return? A law like that sounds simple. In fact it would be extraordinarily complex. How much has to be written about a person before he or she has a right to reply? Who decides in each instance whether the right stands or not? How should the reply be framed; how long should it be, what prominence should it have and is there a right of reply to the reply?

Once again, the only certainty about the world we live in is that the answers will favour the people who least need a right of reply. The right of reply, whatever the wording of the law, would be used in practise further to shield the big businessmen, civil servants, bankers, bishops, lawyers, peers and spies whose activities are already kept almost secret from the world they rob. The rare instances where the media probe into the dirty work of the rich would be cut down still further by ruthless and prodigious use of the ‘right to reply’.

Too often, well meaning busybody politicians (Charter 88 is a glorious example) seek to solve the problems of society by promulgating a law to curb the transgressors. The evidence, however, is overwhelming that the law itself is every bit as corrupted by class as are the media it would be seeking to correct. This is not to say that no reforming laws should be supported. A law designed wholly against the ruling class (like a bill to curb working hours, or a health and safety law) may indeed in practise be reduced to a shadow of what it was in theory, but it is still worth supporting, since it can do no harm and may do some good.

But a law to curb the press will not work just one way, just against the moguls and the proprietors. It will work far more savagely against openly challenging and revolutionary papers like this one, and will even further restrict the few independent journalists who attempt to rip the veil away from the secret state and its paymasters.

Can anything, therefore, be done about the vile standards and offensive behaviour of the media? Of course. These matters should be the permanent concern of the workers who work in the media and of those who read and watch the media. They should be discussed and acted on where discussion and action can have some effect.

The trade unions in the media have always given far too low a priority to the content of what they produce. The ridiculously named Ethics Committee of the National Union of Journalists makes itself a permanent laughing stock by sitting in moral judgement over individual journalists, and castigating them for their transgressions. The unions in the media should combine to set up their own standards committee. They should appoint to it people whose judgements would have a wide measure of respect. Where they find against the media they should direct their fire on the people responsible – the proprietors – and punish them where they hurt most, in the pocket.


Last updated on 27.11.2004