29 APRIL 1989, Page 23


The media: Paul Johnson

thinks the idea of another press inquiry absurd

WHEN Harold Wilson did not know what to do about a problem, or knew what to do but was afraid of the political consequences of doing it, he would set up a Royal Commission. If, as he rightly said, a week IS a long time in politics, the lifespan of such a body is an eternity, and by the time it reports the problem will have gone or changed and in all likelihood there will be a new government. Early in his second term as Prime Minister, Wilson became angry With the press for `conspiring' against him and set up a Royal Commission on it by way of revenge. He invited me to sit on it and foolishly I accepted. In a way I do not regret the experience as it taught me a certain amount, and if I had still been writing novels I would have found it good material. Moreover, at the end I was Presented with a splendid red cabinet box, With my initials and the royal arms in gold, Which now graces my library in Bayswater. But, looking back at it seriously, it was all a tremendous waste of our time and the Public's money. I cannot remember what, if anything, we recommended should be done. At all events, nobody who mattered took any notice. By that time, of course, Wilson had retired and everyone had forgotten why the Commission was appointed.

• Mrs Thatcher will not have Royal Com- Missions at any price and Tim Renton, the Home Office minister in charge of media matters, knows this. On the other hand, the Government has no desire to get itself embroiled in legislation, public or pri- vate, which can plausibly be presented as anti-press, at least not until Mrs Thatcher Secures her fourth term, after which she !mends to do anything she likes. So Renton IS ro fall back on a mini-version of the Wilson dodge, and set up a 'review'. Presumably he has the Iron Lady's permis- sion, which explains why he calls it 'non- governmental'; and I trust this means the taxpayer will not have to fund it. The national press is now rich, thanks to the 'Wapping Revolution, and can perfectly well afford to foot the bill for something Which, but for its iniquities, would never have been thought of. Louis Blom-Cooper, chairman of the Press Council, who seems to fancy himself in the panjandrum role of a left-of-centre Lord Rees-Mogg, is very keen on this review, and is anxious to run it by making his Council its 'sponsoring body'. Whereas the Home Office thinks it should report back within a year or so, Blom-Cooper has more ample ideas: he wants it to take two or three years and cover every possible topic you can think of — be a Royal Commission in fact. It is all a lot of nonsense. I can't see such a body, however composed or durable, achieving any useful purpose, except of course as the smoke- screen for government inactivity, for which it is intended. Those invited to sit on it should be warned they will get much less fun than they imagine and will be buried alive in a paper-mountain, since the mo- ment such an inquiry is set up every busy and not-so-busy body in the land will send inch-thick submissions thudding through its letter-box. The editors most anxious to help will be those who do not need reforming, and those who do will be brisk with their time.

Moreover, what in the end can an inquiry do, other than emit pious noises, all the more muted for having to be consensual? In one sense, the problem of the British press is simple; in another insoluble. It is simple in that the foot-in- door reporters of the tabloids and the 'investigative journalists' who constitute the broadsheet equivalent have taken advantage of a lacuna in the law: we have no offence of personal trespass, other than the law of assault, battery and wrongful imprisonment. We have no law of privacy, other than that marginally covered by breach of confidence, trust and contract, libel and nuisance. The omissions consti- tute a pretty big hole. Through this hole have triumphantly poured all the worst elements in our press from the people who 'tapped' Denis Thatcher's private bank account to those who made Koo Stark's life a misery. The public deplored their im- munity and that is the chief reason why it hates the press as a whole and lashes out indiscriminately with punitive libel awards. What is needed is not a review, since all the facts are known, but a bit of activity on the part of the Government's law officers, who have funked the effort to define privacy and how it can be unlawfully invaded. But then they are very slow fellows: it took them nine years to produce an alternative to Section Two of the old Official Secrets Act. All that is really required is for Mrs Thatcher to give them an ultimatum; but, as already noted, this will not happen until after she has won the next election. (If Labour wins we will, of course, have a nationalised printing industry and a closely supervised press; but that is another story.) The insoluble side of the problem is that the British national press is highly competi- tive. That means we have plenty of titles to choose from and the price we pay is a lot of skulduggery in the battle for readers. Before Wapping, when closed-shop print unions took all the money and profits were tiny or non-existent, national newspapers were driven by anxiety, the fear of going under altogether. With the disembowelling of the unions at Wapping, profits have suddenly become enormous and newspap- ers are driven by frantic greed, especially since not only proprietors but many senior executives and journalists now have a piece of the action. In theory an outraged public could hit back where it hurts, by not buying offending newspapers. And, even in our depraved society, there are lines a tabloid may not cross, as the Star learned to its cost. But the notion of the reader voting against intrusion with his pence is imprac- tical. In this sense, public loathing of the press is irrelevant. When did the gambler not curse the bookie, or the drunkard the brewer or the addict the pusher? The latest ABC figures show, as they always do, that the sharpest tabloids are doing well. The News of the World's October 1988-March 1989 circulation average was up nearly 200,000 or 3.8 per cent. The Sunday Mirror is up an impressive 6.6 per cent and is now back over the three-million mark. The Sun has put on another 116,000 readers, the Daily Mirror/Record another 93,000. No downmarket tabloid editor will eschew intrusion so long as it brings him/her sales, just as no broadsheet editor will forgo 'investigative journalism' so long as it secures the paper those ridiculous press awards. As with betting, booze and drugs, parliament has to step in to protect the public from itself. But how? As Dr John- son said: 'Sir, you may well wonder.'