This is response to the discussion over on the PC thread about the way the press reports these issues. I’ll put it here, so those who don’t want to discuss the underlying politics can be left in peace.
We are told in the UK that we are lack one key instrument of civilisation - a Freedom of Information Act. We are also told that the UK gutter press is amongst the worst in the world (although now the shops sell the National Enquirer, the case is arguable).
France is regarded as having a much clearer line on privacy with legal intervention to maintain the privacy of public figures (either that or the French people live on a higher plain and prefer not to gossip as much as English speakers). One has the impression (possibly incorrect) that in Paris the cafes of the Left Bank are full of people discussing philosophy, rather than caring too much about the private lives of their politicians and public figures. The press had known for years that President Mitterrand had a “love child” but hadn’t thought it important enough to be mentioned until he decided to tell the nation about it himself in 1994. Such a silence is inconceivable (forgive the pun) in most English speaking countries.
So does Freedom of Information stretch to Freedom of Thought and is that the issue here? America went through the era of McCarthyism and fought off ideas emanating in other countries which did not seem to be appropriate for America (that is a charitable interpretation). The approach to ideas which emanate from a more left-wing perspective is to set up a new committee on Un-American activities, it worked last time didn't it? This time the committee isn't in parliament behind closed doors. It is in the pages of the newspapers.
The discussion on these pages is part of the big picture. We are in the days of the kangaroo court. Sentencing is no longer the prerogative of the courts. (Perhaps they never did work in isolation of public opinion.) Instead, we have trial by media. In the same way that case law feeds back into the legal system, the reaction to press reports feeds back into the public consciousness. Is this justice? Maybe not. Is there a better solution? Maybe not.
Which is why I started with press regulation. I don’t have experience about the press in other countries of the world but I know that here in the UK the situation is far from straightforward. In used to live close to (broadsheet) journalists reporting on parliament. I became aware that they have a huge amount of information about politicians and public figures which they choose not to use until there is an issue that brings the matter into the public interest. With the Conservative party in the nineties the issue was “sleeze”. The press did not start revealing the (minor) secret love affairs of ministers until after John Major’s “Back to Basics” – family values message had hit the streets and war had been declared on single parent and other “state scroungers”. On the other side a Labour politician only had his promiscuous homosexual tastes revealed when he was arrested by police on Hampstead Heath and tried to pass the whole affair off as a (highly improbable) robbery. Others who have conducted their affairs in private (and some, not so private) have survived. The UK still has a Foreign Secretary, despite “dumping” his wife at the airport just as he discovered that his long-standing affair was about to be revealed. The United States have allowed their own President to continue to the end of his term, despite an impeachment which in earlier times would meant a certain end to the presidency. In the UK the potential marriage of the Prince of Wales is still debated in the media. I suspect he will marry at the time that public opinion (already mellowing) no longer cares.
I think that the attitude of the broadsheets (“quality papers”) to ordinary members of the public is the same. They don’t go for the innocent college lecturer on the first utterance of a sexist term. They only publish stories about the college lecturer who has got away for years with anti-whatever sentiment. (I haven’t seen any reports of teachers making jokes at the expense of English children in Scottish schools but it is certainly prevalent.) I trust the tabloids less. I think they go for whatever makes a “good” story, they take more risks and cause more personal misery for those involved in the process.
The next question is “Do we get the press we deserve?” I’ll leave that up to you.
The short version of this long posting is that our wrath at supposedly silly cases where individuals are pursued by the press for non pc utterances is part of the process modern day McCarthyism. The press play the part of the accuser and we, who buy or don’t buy the papers are the jury. If the story “sticks” it’s a modern day guilty verdict and passes into case history in that same way that a radical new judgement does in the courts. We are supposed to be appalled at some of the press reports because that is how, these days, we vote and small shifts in public opinion come about.
In looking up some references for this I found a transcript of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in South Africa. One of the speakers talked about the conspiracy of silence that had existed in South Africa. A whole nation had accepted that some people were of less value than others, based on the colour of their skin. In Hitler’s time, many people knew about strange disappearances of large numbers of people but were silent. Woodward and Bernstein tried to pursue the truth of what happened in the Watergate building.
We have lived through a time when press silence failed us. We may now be living through a time of too much freedom of the press. There doesn’t seem to be an acceptable alternative.