15 MARCH 1963, Page 3


N a free society there is an inevitable and Isalutary conflict between authority and the press. However mitigated by convention, the con- flict is a real one; and it must be sustained. It is in the nature of authority, any authority, to wish to suppress inconvenient information, and in that of a free press to disclose it.

Where does the public interest lie? In know- ing the truth. But the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is often hard to come by, and frequently it can only be discerned, if vaguely, somewhere in that no-man's-land of tips and leaks and inferences where a nod may be as good as a wink between two men who trust each other. There is, in short, an ambiguous area be- tween authority and the press which society in its own best interest does well not to examine too closely, far less insist on mapping in unambiguous terms. Many people, no doubt, are shocked by this as by other facts of life, but their sense of outrage should be kept within reasonable bounds. No discussion of the press in a free society makes good sense unless this basic conflict of interests and its concomitant accommodations are kept in mind. Anyone with any real knowledge of the practice of journalism knows this perfectly well: that many laymen do not know it is more than clear from the letters in The Times this week.

During and since the Vassall Tribunal journalists who had not realised it already must have been deeply disturbed to learn how vehemently their occupation is disliked. But it would be wrong for journalists to claim special privilege in law (for this would certainly create a state of affairs worse than the present), and far too often these days they are foolishly blind to the fact that their own malpractices—the invasion of privacy, say; the harrying, within the letter of the law, of individuals who happen to be in the public eye; in taking the popular press still further into the category of light entertainment— are largely responsible for the growing hostility.

There are many aspects of the Vassall case that cannot be- adequately discussed until the pub- lication of the Tribunal's report. Meanwhile Mr. Foster and Mr. Mulholland are in gaol. Their imprisonment was the signal for the press and its critics to state their positions in an exaggerated form. As for the two reporters, we agree that what they showed was, in the words of The Times, a 'proper defiance,' and certainly in this respect they are a credit to their calling: but we must agree also that the punishment which they have drawn upon themselves is as proper as their defiance. When two rights clash, the stronger pre- vails; and those of us who believe that journalists should not and must not be specially privileged can only extend our sympathy to those who chose to obey their consciences and pay the price.

But how will things go in the future? We have seen what happens when the force of the law moves into that no-man's-land which it has until now succeeded in ignoring. We believe that the tacit agreement should be renewed; but there will be no assurance of that until public confidence in the press is restored; and there is little enough chance of that happening unless the press, having now shot off its volleys of high-flown principle, realises the urgent need to put its own house sufficiently in order. Considering the light in which newspapers were shown during the hear- ings of the Tribunal (whether altogether fairly or not is not relevant), the sooner the proprietors' and journalists' organisations are seen to take the problem seriously, the better. The Shawcross Re- port recommended a 20 per cent. lay member- ship of the Press Council, and suggested that if the industry itself did not take the necessary action within a given time, action should be taken for it by statutory legislation. Our own view is that the Press Council is too cumbersome an in- strument, however modified. Since it has never, been taken seriously in the years during which the press was its own judge and jury, it would be better to scrap it and start again.

What is needed in the first place is an adequate ethical code, and this could readily enough be extracted from the body of case law which the Press Council has built up in its years of other- wise undistinguished existence. In Sweden, for example, such a code of honour is accepted by all journalists, and complaints from the public are examined in the light of the code by a small professional court which consists of the Gover- nor of Stockholm as chairman, one repre- sentative of the press, and one of the public, and whose only sanction is full publicity. The system works simply, quickly, and effectively. It is some- thing of this sort that we need here, and the sooner the better if the present generalised hostility towards the press is not to harden into something more positively dangerous to its free- dom, and hence to our liberties. It may be argued that the low standards which characterise much of the popular press are the result of the struc- ture of the industry, which forces a decreasing number of papers into an increasingly feverish pursuit of circulation. But no plausible legislation has so far been suggested to cure this in a way that would be acceptable and effective. It is also true that the public which despises the popular press is that same public which sustains it. Cer- tainly there is no simple solution to a problem which is almost as compex as our society itself.