The decision by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World to drop its efforts at a worldwide ban on identifying their “fake sheikh” is a step forward for genuine media freedom.
Mazher Mahmood has posed as an Arab sheikh in an attempt to lure politicians and celebrities into making unguarded comments. But when he attempted to get me to break the party funding laws, and also to endorse anti-Semitic tirades, I responded by publishing his photograph.
The News of the World sought an injunction against this, arguing in court—would you believe—that I was invading his privacy.
Their attempts make a mockery of the phrase “media freedom”, which drips from the gutter press every time they seek to print lurid “stories” about people’s private lives.
We also heard it from the posh papers during the controversy over the Danish racist caricatures.
It’s gratifying, then, that not only was the News of the World hoist on its own petard, it also ended up relying on the most brazenly hypocritical arguments.
The case will be remembered for the nauseating spectacle of Murdoch’s News International huddling behind Jon Venables, Mary Bell and Maxine Carr. Those three have been granted anonymity for fear of lynch mobs.
News International argued its star “reporter” was deserving of the same. But it is the News of the World and the Sun that would be whipping up their readers into a vigilante mob should it have the whereabouts of any of those they have branded “monsters”.
Even by the low standards set by News International these arguments, rejected by the High Court, for an injunction are pretty sickening. But that’s not the end of the matter.
On Thursday of last week I was invited to appear on Channel 4 News.
Two things astonished me about the edition of Channel 4 News I was invited on to. My first shock was that I had to appear next to Nick Ferrari, a grotesquely right wing pundit.
The second was that, despite the judge’s ruling, Channel 4 decided not to show the pictures of Mahmood because “News International have asked us not to”.
Channel 4’s response to the case reflects the systematic devaluation of news in favour of trivia.
As the investigation and reporting of serious news has diminished, so too has the range of political comment.
It ought to be an overarching news story that the centre of gravity of the big political parties is so far to the right of majority public opinion on so many issues.
It’s not treated as a theme in the media, because most editors and senior journalists now also inhabit the bubble of the politicians they are meant to comment on.
There’s a danger in making these points of harking back to a mythical golden age of journalism. Well, it might never have been golden, but it wasn’t the base metal we largely have now.
The bulk of the media has, of course, always been in the hands of the elite. But now the concentration of ownership is greater and the gap between the media moguls and society in wider.
On the one hand, this is bad news for the radical left. We should resist every move to narrow the media spectrum and we should prize and use every opportunity we get within the mainstream to get our message across.
On the other hand, it points to a paradox that can only be resolved by taking an optimistic vantage point.
All the evidence shows that radical arguments and positions are percolating throughout the majority of the population, despite the media and the mainstream parties.
When that happens, it means the establishment’s defenders are losing not only the arguments but, crucially, the legitimacy of the means of countering our arguments—deference to political authority and to the media.
That was the atmosphere in France last summer when the popular campaign against the neo-liberal European constitution overturned an establishment consensus that encompassed almost every paper and party. The referendum stripped away the props of power.
Less than a year later we see one result—the marvellous student occupations and strikes that have defeated government attacks on young people’s employment rights.
Now that’s something that should quicken the pace of everyone who is pounding the streets for Respect for the council elections and everyone angered that the media pay scant regard.