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Interview: Alex Renton

Alex Renton, former chief feature writer and foreign reporter, London Evening Standard, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

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Alex Renton was interviewed as part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

I’ve had three run-ins with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Once it found in my favour, once it ‘gave advice’ which I suppose was against me and the paper, the Independent, and the last time it ruled against me – well, in fact, against the Evening Standard – on three different counts.

Roy Greenslade, media columnist for the Guardian, called this last ‘one of the three most severe PCC judgements ever’. I’m still annoyed about it. The adjudication was, in a sense, fair – but the circumstances were farcical and I have serious doubts about the organisation, the PCC, which handed it down.

To run through those three: the first incident was when I was editing the diary at the Independent. In 1993, I did a story about Virginia Bottomley, who was Tory secretary for state health under John Major at the time, when his government was targeting teenage unmarried mothers as part of its famously misguided family values campaign.

We revealed that when Bottomley was a teenager, and unmarried, she’d had a child. The PCC gave instant advice: the paper should apologise because the article named the child, who I think was 18 at the time of the article’s publication. It was a mild slap on the wrist – and actually, an easy get-out for the paper, which was embarrassed by what was a rather a good story but was not really the Independent’s kind of thing.

The second PCC incident was in 1998. I wrote a piece for the Evening Standard during the World Cup that upset a lot of Croatian nationals. Croatia was unexpectedly in the quarter-finals, while England had been knocked out. Everyone seemed to be supporting plucky little Croatia. I wrote, with my Balkan reporter’s hat on, a piece saying we shouldn’t support Croatia, especially in a tournament already soured by nationalistic violence.

Croatia was then still under the vicious, nationalist regime of Franjo Tudjman. Inexplicably, UEFA had banned Yugoslavia from the competition, but not Croatia. The piece pointed out simply that Croatia was not so very different from Yugoslavia, in that its rulers and army had been just as complicit in the ‘cleansing’ and murder of civilians during the 1990s as Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic.

Indeed, Tudjman had written history books excusing Croatian fascism during the Second World War; even the Croatian football strip was based on the fascist flag. A lot of Croats in Britain and the Croatian Embassy complained. The PCC found in my favour, saying that although the piece was inflammatory it was a strongly held opinion of my own and was justifiable.

I agree with the principles of the Code. Generally, as a journalist, I’ve observed it. I have broken it when I thought it was justifiable – with my managers’ consent.

For instance, in January 2001 I went undercover as a porter in a hospital in Surrey for the Evening Standard to research conditions and morale among staff. This was justifiable because the portion of the PCC code that deals with such an intrusion is there principally and correctly to prevent patients’ privacy – rightly. We had no intention of invading patients’ privacy in that story: that wasn’t the point. But it must be said we got away with the story only because nobody complained. In fact the hospital praised it as well balanced. We identified the hospital but no patients; some doctors, officials and nurses by first name.

It was for something quite similar that the PCC jumped on me later that year. I went undercover in a school in April 2001 – as with the hospital, I wanted to look at the conditions in an inner London primary at a particularly difficult time. What I found was significant, if hardly surprising – appalling staff shortages, teachers working under terrible pressure, a collapse of local authority systems for dealing with problem children, inadequate security.

I believe – and I’m not alone – that the article had real value and was not in any way sensationalist. I don’t believe that the intrusion was wrong, and I know – because I’ve been in touch with teachers there since – that it did no harm, though it caused some embarrassment.

In the piece we used pseudonyms for everyone – teachers and children – and I made efforts to further blur identities by muddling genders and nationalities to prevent identification. The PCC found against me on clause 1 (inaccuracies), clause 6 (interviewing children without permission), clause 11 (obtaining information by misrepresentation), and identifying a child victim of sexual assault (12). It announced this conclusion by leaking it to the Daily Telegraph.

I won’t go into the arguments here, but I and the Evening Standard maintain that the case was not proved in clause 1 – and the PCC offered no proof or example of an inaccuracy – and the case in clause 12 is pretty dubious. Our greatest mistake was perhaps that, at my then boss’s insistence, we did identify the school.

Otherwise, I obviously have to accept that I was guilty as charged. I have no argument against the Code being enforced against me. That I was engaged in some honest and necessary reporting is not the point. If I had been let off, it would have been hard to argue against journalists using the precedent to go undercover in, say, a school where a royal child was, to see if there was drug-taking, for example. But it was galling, obviously, to be punished as though I was that sort of journalist, intruding on children for the sake of sensation.

But I think there’s a valid argument that the code is perhaps overprotective of children, and that it has been used unscrupulously to stand in the way of some important reporting – for example, in the reporting on child abuse in children’s homes.

No decent journalist can have an argument with the Code. But the complaints system is a joke. Its 12 years have been so dogged by contradiction and hypocrisy that I think its credibility is now fatally eroded.

No serious journalist cares a damn about the PCC – it’s so obviously flawed. And no popular journalist gives a damn anyway. What matters is the sort of journalism that the newspaper boss wants. And if a tabloid news editor wants a reporter to lie, cheat or steal, he or she will, and quite frequently does.

Examples? There are millions – I’ll give you one from just before I left the Standard – I wrote about it for our media section because it was particularly sick and because no one complained, the PCC was unable to act. The Sun and the Mirror had colluded – this is in May 2001, I think – in inventing an interview with a woman in Spain whose son had been accused – not charged, obviously – of the rape and murder of a British schoolgirl.

This interview ran under one of those headlines – ‘My shame, by monster’s Mum’, that sort of thing – and in the first-person interview she appeared to admit her son’s guilt. The joke was that, not only had she not spoken to the journalists – as the papers admitted to me (they claimed to have been passed quotes from a relative through another intermediary) – but she was too old and sick with Alzheimer’s to have given them the time of day.

The PCC is toothless and it holds no real power over journalists or their proprietors. I don’t think the public is much impressed; the way complaints have dropped off over the past few years is evidence, not that papers have got better (as the PCC will claim), but that people know they’re unlikely to get real satisfaction from it.

I think the PCC has sold out, lost its integrity by getting into bed with the people who it ought to have at arm’s length – the tabloid editors and proprietors, the people who tread the boundaries of the Code daily for commercial gain.

At its inception, the PCC made a difference. Some of the grotesque excesses of the eighties, like trespass and the buying-up of criminals, were curbed as they had to be. But in the past 10 years, the PCC has not succeeded in doing anything except stave off legislation on newspaper standards and behaviour. It’s done that very effectively.

What it has singularly – and very disappointingly – failed to do is pull the British press out of its nosedive into the gutter. I believe that the industry, not just the red-tops, is in deep trouble. It’s less honest, less responsible, and dumber. Honest journalists feel this more than anyone else, because we get tarred with the rest of them.

The press has lost the public’s faith too, even though it has more political importance than at any time in modern history. The press is the only real opposition in the country, the only one the government cares about anyway. The PCC has failed in this regard; it hasn’t made British print journalism better and that is tragic. What an opportunity missed! And now, I think that in terms of standards of reporting, and in editorial honesty impartiality, we are way behind most European countries and America, too.

The PCC doesn’t represent the public’s interest because it’s rightly seen as a patsy organisation, sucking up to the royal family one day, the red-top editors the next. So many of its decisions are so obviously made because of the pressure that is put on it. Take 2000/2001 alone – the failure to act over the Bulger killers case, the Ronnie Biggs farce, the photos of Anna Ford, and the whole double-standards thing over the royal family are testament to this.

It is also secretive, in just the way an organisation set up to restore standards and public faith shouldn’t be. It won’t release minutes of its deliberations. You can’t find out which editors sat on which complaints. That’s absurd. The conflicts of interest are obvious. How can Paul Dacre sit on a case involving a paper in his group? How can Neil Wallis of the Sunday People sit on a Bulger killers complaint, when his newspaper has published information on the same story declared in court to be obviously false? You are asking men and women who are party to deliberate dishonest behaviour every day – read any tabloid, and some broadsheets to see that – to sit and judge their peers’ honesty? It’s a joke.

The public have to waive their right to sue for libel if they approach the Commission. Why? There’s no legal aid for the public even though newspapers will use their entire legal teams (as I’ve seen) to fight their cases. And there’s no compensation, not even if a paper has made hundreds of thousands of pounds selling a story that subsequently is judged in breach of the Code. I don’t see why a tabloid should get away with selling papers on the back of a fake story or a code-breaching story and not have to pay financial penalties. After all, the only thing those proprietors understand is money. When did a PCC ruling ever rock their share price?

The system has inherent problems in that the PCC concerns very different types of newspapers. One set of newspapers that I would obviously call ‘good’ newspapers defends the PCC for very good reasons. Self-regulation is key to the survival of the freedom of the press but to defending this system we have to justify the actions of the red-top end and indeed some of the ‘middle-market’ tabloids, too.

Decent papers, honest journalists are put in the uncomfortable position of defending organisations that are often ethically completely indefensible. But we have to speak up to protect them for the greater good of the trade – to protect freedom of the media and stave off legislation.

Essentially, one end of the market exploits the PCC and self-regulation for financial gain. The rest of us are left to defend it. But it is indefensible. We journalists are harming ourselves and the trade by sticking up for what is an inherently corrupt system.

I was a journalist for 15 years. During that time some things have improved. On privacy, because of the tightening of the rules and the threat of legislation, the media are behaving better. In some ways privacy has been tightened up, in a good way. Papers behave better. More than lip service is now paid to such things as corrections, seeking permissions to print, and right of reply. It varies astonishingly from paper to paper, though. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to get a correction into The Sunday Times.

However, we see rulings that I find worrying not least over the naming of the Bulger killers. This illustrates the problem with self-regulation: how can newspapers that behave as irresponsibly as they do enter serious debate about their ethical responsibilities over privacy? How can you discuss ethics with the brains behind the News of the World’s name-the-paedophiles farce? I don’t think we’re sensible or responsible enough to fight our corner and that’s a very big problem with self-regulation. It’s like asking infants to run the primary school.

Confessionalism in the press touches a much wider problem, which is the decline of news values. I think newsdesks are increasingly driven by the marketing side of the business – and as a result, more and more resources and energy goes to feed the public’s ever-growing obsession with celebrity. But the dumbing down debate gets pretty silly. You can’t argue too much with your audience – you can only try to educate them. The plunge down market that we’ve seen in the past 10 or so years, with The Times and the Telegraph led by the same sort of entertainment/celebrity driven agenda as the tabloids, is sad, of course.

But far more harm has been done to good journalism by media barons with no interest in good newspapers, just a lust for profit and destruction of other players in the market. I’m particularly talking about The Times’ price war against the Independent, my first employers. It’s that constriction of the market that has led to a world where people can’t afford to pay reporters any longer. They can’t afford to train them properly. Those are much greater problems.

How should the line between private and public life be drawn from media professionals and why? I find that very difficult to answer. I remember a former Sun editor once saying ‘well it’s in the public’s interest if the public are interested, and they are, look they bought the paper’. It’s very hard to draw up those lines. In the end you have to ask the courts to draw it up in cases where people’s lives have been unfairly damaged by media intrusion. The crucial word is ‘unfairly’.

Secondly, the courts would have to take into account if somebody habitually invites intrusion into their lives because they are public figures. They should put up with more than private individuals. I think it’s a case-by-case situation for the courts.

Journalists have lost faith in their capacity to improve journalism. But I think we’re far too jaded and cynical. It’s tragic the way we laugh at these problems, shrug them off and say ‘It was always like that,’ and tell some hilarious anecdote about some fabulous scam pulled by a grand old hack in the pub on deadline.

But we’re laughing ourselves out of business. What’s the point of working as a journalist – taking risks, getting threatened, beaten up, shot at, which has all happened to me and some of my friends, if nobody believes a word you write?

We claim to deal in the truth. For many of us it’s the point of our working lives. But you go around the country and poll people and 70-80 percent say that they don’t believe what they read in the press. According to MORI, more people trust politicians than trust journalists. I think that for our own good, for our own future, quite apart from the future of democracy in this country, we need to do something about it.

In other countries with a healthy free media, journalists are not seen as liars. I have travelled a lot and I found it strange going to foreign countries and being trusted, respected by people. To be able to interview people without them going, ‘Ooh no, you’ll misquote me, you lot are evil’.

In Britain we’ve got to start cleaning journalism up and I’d begin by re-examining and reforming the PCC. We must give it a whip to punish wrongdoers in a way that hurts. And while I wouldn’t make it independent of the press, I would kick off its board and its committees all the editors who’ve shown no commitment in their own work to honest journalism.

We’re incredibly smug. We really are. We have this great freedom here – which many journalists across the world would and do die for including the guys who run the Zimbabwe Daily News, for instance, – and we’re abusing it. In fact, we’re losing it.

Alex Renton was chief features writer on the Evening Standard until July 2001. He was the features editor of the Standard (1994-1996), and, diary editor, news reporter and arts writer at the Independent. He was Commended in the British Press Awards 2000 – investigative team for a story on the death of a 13-year-old prostitute in King’s Cross and in 2001 for his work reporting the war in Sierra Leone. Since July 2001 Alex has worked for Oxfam in East Asia.

Interview by Catherine Teare, Researcher, The LIRE media group

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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