29 APRIL 1989, Page 7


hen you consider how they lecture the rest of us on how to behave, British newspapers are extraordinarily bad at managing their own affairs. Their audible relief when the Right of Reply Bill fell and their fear of the Protection of Privacy Bill still before the House reflects an under- standing by the serious ones that the behaviour of the remainder has taken the Whole industry over the brink of what is acceptable to an admittedly hypocritical public (i.e. we read it avidly even while Protesting that it should never have been Printed). One problem is their inability to unite. As a debate between Andrew Neil and Max Hastings at the recent Interna- tional Press Institute seminar showed, the differences are not just between serious newspapers and the tabloids; these two editors differed on almost every point. Another problem is their incompetence in campaigning on their own behalf. For instance, they were 'rolled over' by the Home Office on the Official Secrets Bill, realising far too late how restrictive it is. Max Hastings was right to argue that newspapers, by allowing the debate to develop around Spycatcher and other security matters, allowed the Home Office to fight on its own ground. It is when the Press demonstrates that secrecy affects People in their everyday lives, that it covers up injustice, incompetence and waste, environmental pollution, and threats to health and safety, that the public Will start to take notice. It is typical of the self-absorption of newspapers that they have overlooked the maxim that the first step to winning a battle is choosing the territory that offers you the best chance.

The IPI seminar may not have achieved much but it had its moments, not least When the BBC's Donald MacCormack asked Andrew Neil, 'What's the difference between Sky Television and the Loch Ness monster?' and then provided his own answer: 'Some people have seen the Loch Ness monster'. Then there was the Swedish Journalist who described an editor as someone who sorts the wheat from the Chaff — and then prints the chaff. There Was much talk about the tension between Politicians and the press. What concerns me far more is the partnership between the two. I'm amazed how often newspapers and television go along with the provision of a 'photo-opportunity' without applying their critical faculties to the so-called oPportunity on offer, and at the way many current affairs producers allow ministers to dictate the terms of their radio and televi-' sion appearances. I find the perpetuation of the lobby system even more unaccept- able. This involves newspapers repeatedly lying to their readers about their sources. It also puts journalists in the humiliating position of being the messengers rather than the genuine observers and reporters of ministers. If people don't like the message, the minister can deny it and the reporter has only two options: to look incompetent or dishonest, or to betray the system. That most choose the former may or may not be, as they believe, a reflection of their personal integrity, but it also shows how the lobby has eroded the overall integrity of the profession. The Guardian, Independent and Scotsman are no worse for rejecting the lobby; it is time the rest did the same.

The Official Secrets Bill had its Third Reading in the Lords on Monday. It was just another depressing episode in what has become an increasingly shoddy story. The whole process has been a farce. Almost everybody who listened to the debates, particularly in the Commons, politicians of all parties and journalists alike, knows that the Home Secretary lost every argument and, despite looking a bit shame-faced from time to time, just blundered on, propped up by a Three Line Whip. By rejecting a public interest defence he has enshrined in law the principle that minis- ters' rights to control and protect informa- 'May I bring my husband?' tion, no matter at what public cost, are the supreme rights. In fact, in this area the only rights, given that we have no right to know in Britain. Mr Hurd's claims ea substantial and unprecedented thrust in the direction of greater openness') that it is a more liberal measure than Section Two of the 'old Act because it removes vast sec- tions of information from the protection of the criminal law, are bogus. Not one additional item of information will neces- sarily be available as a result of the Act. It will now be protected by internal disciplin- ary procedures. How much easier quietly to fire someone than to have to enforce unnecessary secrecy in the courts and in full public view.

It will now be clear to readers that I am active in the Campaign for Freedom of Information. But what else? I don't find it easy, when confronted with the question, to describe what I do. Campaigner? It raises more questions than answers. It creates images of demonstrations and I've only been on three or four in 23 years. Anyway, a campaigner sounds like a bore and I at least try not to be. Politician? In a way I am, but it is not really apt. And that sounds like a bore too. Company director? I am one, but, having been a court reporter in my younger days, I always associate company directors with the more sordid cases I covered. . . Des Wilson, described as a company director, was charged with. . . .' Have you noticed that in court reports people are always 'described as a company director'? The inference is that it is either a cover-up or that the company is pretty shady. Eventually I settled on 'jour- nalist'. That's what I left school to be and that's what occasionally I still am (editors, please note). However I read the other day an opinion poll that, in terms of public respect, put journalists and politicians together on the bottom rung. To put it bluntly, they are despised. Maybe com- pany director isn't that bad after all.

My wife and I both work at home a lot and decided we would be more efficient if we swapped studies. Simple enough, you may think, but, alas, not so. First we found the desks, photocopier, filing cabinets etc were so heavy we had to hire two men to help: £46. Then, because I need a televi- sion set in my study, we needed an aerial extension: £30. The telephone lines had to be switched: £40. The fax machine and line had to be moved: £47. New shelves were needed: £230. New power points were installed: £110. Total at last count, £453 and still mounting. Plus two days lost earnings organising it all. My advice to others: leave well alone.