Saturday, 15 September 2012

Rock Me Asmodeus

Kate Middleton has breasts. Prince Harry sometimes takes his clothes off in private. Oh, those royals! How fortunate we are that we have a free press which, though it (mostly) has the decency not to show us those intrusive pictures, will tell us about them so we can be sure power is not abused. At least not by naked people.

Today, accidental pornographer and erstwhile drummer boy Richard Desmond, who has pounded the percussion for free speech everywhere but the libel courts, has declared himself so disgusted by The Irish Daily Star's publication of pictures of the topless princess that he's considering closing it down. One might suggest that it would be more proportionate for him to sack the editor on duty - or even to reconsider his own policy of encouraging staff to push boundaries in order to make sales - but perhaps in these post-News of the World days he thinks it'll look positively heroic to make a hundred people redundant. After all, whilst a lot of people read tabloids, everybody hates, them, don't they? From phone hacking to the Hillsborough revelations, they've hardly been making friends this year.

In ancient times the story went that there was a demon called Asmodeus, and this particular demon's hobby was lifting up the roofs of people's houses to peer at what was going on within. Whilst everybody agreed that it was important the public sphere be monitored and politicians held to account, the idea of intruding into the private lives of citizens was considered outright evil. It's important to bear in mind, of course, that not everybody was a citizen. That attitude still lingers in the present day. As long as the more prurient sections of the press are careful to restrict their focus to already stigmatised groups - criminals, benefit claimants, Muslims, transgender people - they can get away with a great deal. It's only when they trouble the powerful that they find themselves at risk - which illustrates both the reason why we need them to be troubling and the fact that they're passing off as trouble what is merely smut.

As Chair of Trans Media Watch, I spend a good part of my time standing up for ordinary people whose lives are sensationalised in the press. By and large, those members of the wider public who are educated about transgender issues are supportive of this. I get rather less support when I raise my voice in defence of the privacy of the royal family. They have no right to privacy, people tell me, because they're public figures. But what does this mean? That their very flesh is public? That, by virtue of their special status, they should not be treated as human? Whilst I cannot help but note that making royals afraid to undress in private might at least decrease the chances of the situation continuing, I don't think any amount of wealth could justify them being, in effect, treated as mere objects. Besides, when we buy into attacks made against them as private individuals we are doing the very opposite of holding them to account. We are allowing ourselves to be distracted from the real questions that need to be asked about the power they wield. It is notable that the recent story about Prince Charles being consulted on a wide range of government policies, and asked to approve them before they became law, received substantially less coverage. One pair of breasts is much like another but to fiddle with soft porn whilst our democracy burns takes a special kind of tit.

It takes, in fact, the kind of person who has no interest in journalism at all but sees owning newspapers merely as a route to personal wealth and power; just the kind of person to whom sacking a hundred journalists means nothing. When people like this are making the big decisions at our major newspapers we need to ask ourselves not why journalists are letting us down but, rather, why journalists are not being heard at all. When we talk about press ethics we need to remember that most journalists - as reflected by the NUJ - have sincere concerns about ethical practice. At certain papers, however, it is only the unethical few who can climb to the top - or stay in a job at all. And when it comes to public redress, the Press Complaints Commission often finds itself hamstrung by a code of practice controlled by a small group of editors whose influence on the industry should be every bit as suspect as that of the politicians everyone fears may take control.

There are other options, of course. My charity has made a series of recommendations to the Leveson Inquiry, as have others, and it is shortly due to report. It's possible that the recent right royal scandals represent a jockeying for position before this happens. We already saw something of that cynicism when transgender exposés briefly disappeared from the papers during the submission period for the inquiry, only to reappear afterwards, as we were invited to document in a second submission later on. Our position is certainly not that control of the press should be given to the government, as any sensible person can see the risks this entails - rather, we would support the establishment of a truly independent body. The problem that I perceive is that a body controlled by a handful of men isn't so very far from a government-controlled organ anyway - it may be that the power base is divided but it is still very much in the hands of the establishment. It lacks the inherent vitality and diversity that journalism needs in order to thrive - in order to do its job.

What is that job? Sometimes it does involve peering into the private domain. There will inevitably be some cases where this is genuinely in the public interest - a little poison, as they say, to cure the greater ill. But we must not assume that because something is prurient it is also, in any meaningful sense, revealing. I suspect most of us - David Icke and friends aside - had a pretty good idea what Prince Harry would look like naked before we were offered the option of seeing it.

We've seen a lot of weak apologies this week. Kelvin MacKenzie saying that he regrets calling Liverpool football fans thieves responsible for their own suffering, but doing nothing to explain why he was so ready to believe it, even whilst he blames others for misinforming him. Richard Desmond thinking that by getting rid of assorted staff members, most of whom will have had nothing to do with the boobs boob, he can enjoy the publicity those pictures have brought to his papers whilst dodging the fallout. I'm not going to add to that - I'll say, straight out, that I wouldn't cry for any of his papers if they were closed tomorrow. That said, my feelings about their staff are another matter. Likewise my feelings about the newspaper industry, which depends on its plurality and is already suffering because so much of that is meaningless. I'm dubious about the idea of restricting ownership because there are practical issues there around how broadsheets can be kept afloat, but there's plenty of room for change in the nitty gritty of how papers are managed and run. Let's stop pretending our press is free in its current form, and start fighting for it.

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