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June 1997

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[Guardian - June 2 1997]


Celebrated British journalist Harry Evans, now publisher of Random House in New York, compares US and UK newspapers and asks if the British press are mature and responsible enough to use greater freedoms of the press in the interests of the public - not prurience?

If there is to be freedom, it is freedom for what? Freedom for the clandestine taping of calls to a therapist? Freedom for snooping on children at school? Freedom to pay for a video of the Princess of Wales and her supposed lover? Freedom to trespass in hospital wards? Freedom to ridicule a minister because she has put on weight?

Freedom is an opportunity; the eternal vigilance required for liberty is also required to frustrate the misuse of liberty.

Having now lived in the United States for more than a decade, I am troubled by the present state of the free press in America. A decline in standards of reporting, and especially in the frequency, quality and range of investigative journalism is discernible, with a sharp rise in public disaffection with the press.

Let me emphasise at the outset that fine original reporting and investigations are still to be found in the New York Times, in the intellectual magazines, the New Yorker and Atlantic, and occasionally in the regional press, and there is unexceptional routing reporting from C-Span, the PBS news hour and CNN. But generally several things seem to be happening.

1. Tabloid values now suffuse the press in ways unthinkable a decade ago. Complex stories are squeezed into good-guy, bad-guy formats. A significant degradation began when television news programmes became a profit centre. Bill Paley, the founder of CBS, always said it would be a lamentable day if that happened. Well, it is now around dusk on that lamentable day. Sam Donaldson is no Walter Conkite.

2. Sullivan (a landmark American judgement handed down in 1964 by a Supreme Court judge when he upheld the New York Times's appeal against damages previously awarded to a police commissioner; it subsequently transformed libel law in the US) was a progressive and necessary reform, but it has been abused. It is one thing to facilitate criticism and exposure of public interest. It is another to dilute "public official" to "public figure" and so remove the right to a reputation from anyone who happens to have had five minutes of fame.

3. The panic over audiences has resulted in an erratic, not to say zany, sense of priorities. Television, said Fred Friendly (celebrated CBS news executive), makes so much money doing its worst that it can't afford to do its best. The emerging rule seems to be the more trivial the event, the more tremendous the coverage, the more frantic the chase. It is indeed the era of the "Trivia Cops".

Newspapers and network TV do not hesitate to use a supermarket scandal sheet as the source and pretext for the most scurrilous stories - stories of no redeeming public value. The practice is defended, if it is defended at all - on grounds that the story is about "character". This is no more than prurience on stilts. It is as much about character as Joe McCarthy's list of names was to do with state secrets.

Example: when I left, a scandal sheet had set up a trap, hiring a prostitute to compromise a sports hero and filming it. The rest of the press followed. Worse. Nobody criticised the scandal sheet. On the contrary, there is a good deal of vindictive gloating as if it had performed a notable public service - the man's marriage to a television personality could not be as good as they said, could it? The New York Times is conspicuous by virtue of the fact that it is one of the few, newspapers, perhaps the only, paper to have refrained from joining the hyena pack.

4. There has been a significant growth of paranoid radio where lies in all shapes and sizes go forth unchallenged.

5. At the same time, paradoxically, various inhibitions of politically correctness, a false patriotism, a suffocating sanctimony, and a culture of victimisation, restrict reporting and debate in ways unfamiliar in Britain, or for that matter France, where there is more tolerance for the wayward and unconventional.

When Dick Morris wrote his book about just how Clinton was re-elected - something nobody had thought was possible in 1994 - it was better reported in Britain, notably in the Guardian, than in the US, because in the US, however newsworthy his revelations, his sexual misconduct mad him a non-person.

An even more significant inhibition has to do with anything touching on race or ethnicity. Despite all the good recommendations of a variety of commissions, fears of being accused of "racism" for a whole decade discouraged the press from reporting on the plight of the urban underclass, of the cycle of broken families, crack addiction, and disappearance of jobs in city manufacturing.

It was not a benign neglect; it was the blacks who suffered from the fastidious political correctness. More recently, even the best newspapers have flinched from reporting and discussing the dramatic and potentially divisive changes in the ethnic composition of the American population due to the wholly unpredicted results of the change in immigration law in 1965.

6. So far all the size and vivacity of the country, there are proportionately fewer independent voices than in Britain. The American manufacturing genius for standardisation seems to have carried over into journalism in the newspapers and the network news shows. In the supposedly sophisticated East, in the Sunbelt and Midwest, you find the same packaging of news, the same columnists, the same preoccupation with the same celebrities, the same semi-envious, semi-admiring fascination with their lifestyle rather than their work, the same obsession with short-term finances.

7. Management pressure to maintain the exceptional profits of the eighties - 15, 20, even 50 per cent - has compelled more and more editors to think of the market research first and the imperatives of journalism second. Resources devoted to the production of news began a dramatic fall in the eighties from a national average of 20 percent of revenues to 6 and 8 per cent.

8. While energies are deployed on the titillating, real power in the bureaucracies of government and corporations often escapes scrutiny.

In case the thought should cross your mind that these are the lamentations of a homesick expat, let me say that America is a most stimulating place to work and that the anxieties I report are shared by a host of distinguished journalists - people like David Broder, Mike Wallace, Robert McNeil, Ben Bagikian, Jim Squires, Abe Rosenthal, Bill Kovach, Adam Gopnik, James Fallows, Osborn Elliott and others have created a whole literature of criticism. A typically American exercise of self-improvement. They use words like malicious, negative, self-serving, mean, shameless, sanctimonious, belligerent, aggressive, disingenous, plain nasty.

Elliott, a pioneering editor of Newsweek in the Watergate and Vietnam years, deplores it as journalism with a sneer, with little sense that any public policy is much worth pursuing. Adam Gopnik discerns a transference from investigation to inquisition with very few unequivocal successes in proportion to the amount of human misery caused.

And so to the opportunity for the British press.

Can it be saved - saved by freedom? Can a jealously independent press respond to a large measure of liberation from legal restraint with a large measure of restraint of its own? Can it summon up the moral resolve to report and comment on causes and legislation that matter, even if these originate with rival newspapers? Can it make professional pariahs of the exploiters of private lives? Can a press fiercely competitive for readers find the willpower to ignore the circulation director and reject other people's dirty laundry?

Can it respond to new access not with glee in finding fault, but with a good-faith effort to advance the common good? Can it do this without turning from watchdog to lapdog? Indeed, will it make vigorous use of the Freedom of Information Act?

Can it find the humility to acknowledge the truth of Walter Lippman's perception that the press alone is too frail to bear the burden of popular sovereignty? Can it more readily admit error and correct it? Can it live by the precepts it preaches - that the preferable path to truth is through open debate and not the law courts? ITN rightly wants to defend its correspondents in Bosnia but it is a shame it did not choose to seek redress against Living Marxism in a television confrontation - on BBC, say - rather than by issuing writs and apparently silencing discussion of a complex situation.

Finally, let us acknowledge that we have only ourselves to blame for many signal failures; the monitoring of the subterranean movements in society as well as the obvious. Perhaps the most conspicuous even now was the long years of inertia when the evil stew began to brew in Northern Ireland.

I believe the British press can rise to the occasion. Alan Rusbridger (Guardian editor) in the James Cameron lecture - whole lotta lecturers goin' on! - last week suggested a subtle bargain which would balance a new right of privacy, a new freedom of expression, and a new right to know. This is the kind of leadership demanded by the hour. Will other editors respond?

The British press has certain advantages over the American just now. This society is less afraid of controversy; perhaps, perhaps, a little obsessed by money. Television is not driven by the same demons - at present. The buoyant quality press is as good as any press anywhere in writing and it has a wider view of the world. And there are no better popularisers of the complicated, no better dramatisers of the dull, than the tabloids. One thinks back to the genius of Hugh Cudlipp at the Mirror, and we saw a flash of that in the election.

One thinks back, also, to founding father Alexander Hamilton. He was wrong in doubting the worth of a Bill or Rights, as our experience has shown, but he was surely right when he wrote that "whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution must altogether depend of public opinion and the general spirit of the people and government".

The spirit is willing. The force is with us. Yes, the half-free press can be saved and it can, it will, it must, enhance the quality of democracy in Britain.

This is an edited extract from the Iain Walker Lecture delivered by Harry Evans in Oxford last week. Evans was editor of the Sunday Times 1967-81 and editor of the Times 1981-82. He later moved to the US and is now president and publisher of Random House.

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