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What is the Guardian newspaper up to, asks Helen Searls

Our new moral Guardian

The Guardian privacy debate, organised by the newspaper in October, was a strange affair. An audience of journalists, lawyers, minor celebrities and media students filled the National Film Theatre to listen to other lawyers and journalists talk about the need for a new privacy law. Why was the Guardian organising this event, I asked myself? Surely they ought to be on the other side of the debate. Journalists have traditionally been among the keenest defenders of press freedom. Why had so many of them apparently switched sides?

Roy Greenslade, former Mirror editor and now Guardian columnist, shed some light on things when he said that we all had to ask ourselves 'what is a newspaper for?' when thinking about privacy. In answering that question, Greenslade assured us, it would become clear why serious journalists had nothing to fear from a carefully framed privacy law.

Asking the question did not make me less fearful of a privacy law, but it did give me a hint as to why the Guardian has gone so badly wrong in this debate. The Guardian no longer fears a privacy law because it is redefining what it means to be a newspaper. In undergoing this transformation the need to defend traditional free-press values has been sidelined.

During the general election in May, the Guardian propelled itself into the electoral arena with its active promotion of the 'anti-sleaze' candidate Martin Bell. It is now clear that this was not just a one off. Today the Guardian is aiming to step into the breech on other matters.

Look for example at the Guardian's attitude to privacy laws. We are told in the wake of the death of Diana that the new concern about privacy is the result of a public demand for a more responsible press. Yet polls around the Sunday Mirror's revelations about Tory MP Piers Merchant's love life, coupled with sales figures of 'tell-all' Diana books, show that there is still a big demand from many to know more about the rich and famous.

Rather than merely following public opinion, the press in general, and the Guardian in particular, are leading the campaign for a different kind of news. There is now a genuine desire among many newspaper editors for the press to be seen to become more ethically responsible. This change in heart is not simply a response to public pressure. It is a yearning for respectability reflecting these newspapers' aspirations to play a role as society's moral guardians, the arbitrators over what is right and what is wrong. It is this sentiment that explains why so many editors have fallen over themselves in a rush to adopt new codes of conduct.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has not only led the call for a privacy law. While other newspapers still occasionally expose the sordid affairs of the rich and powerful, the Guardian deplores such antics. Investigative reporting for the Guardian has been reduced to little more than probing the rather minor financial improprieties of failed Tory politicians. The news-paper often seems more concerned with exposing the despicable acts of tabloid journalists and paparazzi.

In October, Rusbridger announced that he intend to make the Guardian the most honest and open British newspaper. To this end he has appointed two ombudsmen to deal with readers' complaints. Rusbridger has also promised that he will each day set aside space to publish corrections. On the surface this all seems laudable. And as somebody who has taken the Guardian to the Press Complaints Commission, and failed, you might think that I would welcome these changes. But there is something about the tone and context of these innovations that makes me think the Guardian is losing sight of what it is meant to be in the business of doing.

The over-concern with matters of privacy and apparently exceptional emphasis on readers' complaints seem to herald a new spirit in the newspaper's offices. Behind both initiatives lies the worrying assumption that the behaviour of the press is one of the most serious problems facing society. The 'unethical' journalist is now portrayed as a public enemy.

A free press is meant to expose matters to the public that would otherwise go unnoticed. The emphasis on ethics seems to imply that the Guardian is putting this old and distasteful business of poking noses into the affairs of the powerful behind it.

I heard recently at a meeting in Leeds that Alan Rusbridger is now keen to adopt some of the principles of American 'civic journalism'. To this end, he apparently had some notion that the Guardian could play a role in resolving the West Ridings School crisis in Halifax. Needless to say this attempt by journalists to 'sort things out' did not get very far, but the very fact that the Guardian thought it could play any kind of useful role in the midst of a complex crisis is worrying. Has the time come that the Guardian is more concerned about being seen to be a moral player than a newspaper?

I have no interest in journalists behaving badly and I am sympathetic to the complaint that newspapers can make individuals' lives a misery. But once the press becomes unduly preoccupied with these problems it seems to me it loses sight of what it is in business for. Rather than getting on with the job of 'telling it like it is', the Guardian today appears more concerned about making sure that we get the right moral messages.

Good journalists are rarely respected as upstanding moral citizens. By definition they offend many in public life and even a few private individuals in the course of their work. And if they are doing their job correctly, they will make enemies - and not just of ex-Tory MPs. This is how it should be. As Ann Leslie of the Mail, one of the few outspoken opponents of privacy legislation, said at the Guardian debate, there is something deeply worrying about a press that 'cosies up' to those in authority and agrees to keep their secrets from the rest of us. Society benefits from the fact that some are prepared to poke their noses into things that others would rather they left alone. Such activity lies at the heart of a free press.

Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998



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