7 AUGUST 1964, Page 8

Poor But Honest

By CLAUD COCKBURN Tan laughter and applause recorded when dwarf trips giant may be ill-judged. Perhaps the giant is good at heart, and the imp quite malign. But our resident press giants are at best oafish. They need to be prodded with hot tongs before they act like civilised citizens. We may consider the case of Mr. King's Sunday Mirror, Mr. King's Daily Mirror, Mr. King's Sunday People, and the small independent republic of Private Eye. The episode, possibly trivial, is symptomatic of some of the ills of the newspaper business.

In mid-July the Sunday Mirror staggered shrieking into the street with the news that size- able sections of London were living under a reign of terror. Thugs were taking over. Evil master- minds were at work. We seemed to have a situa- tion where American tourists could be excused for packing their bags and taking off for Chicago. In the Daily Mirror conditions were, if possible, worse.

Only an ignorant person would shrug off the story. Such a person, knowing little of the facts of life and still less of journalism, is of the sort that thinks warnings of impending war are a news- paper stunt—'they only do it to get circulation' --until the bombs fall and the Stock Exchange closes.

The horror stories may have been true. The Mirror newspapers said they were. And they made plain that they knew, or thought they knew, the names of the men with the master-minds. In a healthy state of affairs, people in possession of such knowledge would be eager, pleased, and proud to use their special position as public reporters to tell the citizenry just who was doing what to whom, and who paid. They would acquire merit so doing. They could genuinely claim to be running a newspaper.

But this is the point where our newspaper business shows itself very sick. The Mirror news- papers--and in this, unfortunately, they acted as most other newspapers would too—failed to print the relevant names.

Hardly anyone in the business was surprised or indignant. Fear of the libel law—fear, that is, of having to pay out money—is intelligible. But it is now, and has been for a long time, taken as a reputable excuse for any and every omission or weazel word. The newspapers concerned also indicated that physical fear was at work to seal the lips of those who might otherwise be brought into court to substantiate charges. People could get grievously maimed for 'talking.' That, Lon- don being what a big city is, may be true, too. And the nasty fact was that the suffocating silence of the big newspapers was actually demonstrat- ing, day by day, that a sort of 'reign of terror'— operated by the libel laws and the alleged 'thugs' —was a reality.

It was in this situation, both farcical and grisly, that Private Eye showed the importance to journalism of having people about who are too poor to worry about money, and insufficiently senile to know that there is nothing you. can do about anything. The vulgar imp, declaring the above-mentioned situation to be `grotesque,' rudely demanded why the Mirror did not 'take the fluff out of its mouth' and print the names of the people it was denouncing, and possibly libelling. Private Eye, whose editors are opposed to people talking demotically among themselves and writing mandarin for the public, then printed the names of the men the Mirror was talking about.

Eleven days later—having let one Sunday pass in silence--the People (also owned by Mr. King) made its big front-page story of the day the fact that it could now 'disclose the identity' of the two brothers concerned. Soon others were print- ing them too, with pictures. This did the public good. It may have done the men good; at least they were not being privately slandered all over town.

For anyone who takes journalism, or, for that matter, the state of the nation, seriously at all, the tiny episode is encouraging. It tells defeatists we do not have to suffocate. As the jingle says, 'Small as I atn, and big as you are, I'm bigger than you are, small as I am.'