So Brooks Newmark, Tory dickpic exponent. As Harlan Ellison didn’t title, I have no mouth but I can’t stop laughing. Or rather, I can’t stop laughing but I have a serious point I need to make. Obviously this was really awful journalism, in fact, hardly journalism at all in any meaningful sense. For a start there’s the entrapment. There’s also the frankly creepy impersonation of some random woman in Sweden. It’s very hard to defend even though…and then the laughter kicks in. But it is very hard to defend.
Which reminded me of something. Reading Nick Davies’ Hack Attack, it struck me that if cocaine was to write its memoirs, the chapter on News International would probably be left out in the end because cocaine would be too ashamed to publish it. And it would be a great pity, because it might have been the best bit.
It’s not just that the NOTW and Sun newsrooms were incredibly cokey, nor even, according to Davies, that Wapping had a recognised dealer on the staff, even if it’s telling that they managed to have a staff drug dealer while also having an editor who specialised in their contacts with gangsters and another who specialised in their contacts with cops, and the whole culture of the place seems like one long pit-stained gak-sweat. Brash, overfamiliar, and also brittle. Also, reading Stick It Up Your Punter after Hack Attack, it’s very noticeable how many people there are repeatedly described as “energetic” and “supremely confident”, but also subject to dramatic mood swings and waves of paranoia.
It’s that the paper’s routine functioning, the process of production, depended in an important way on the stuff. And I don’t even mean this in that so many of them couldn’t get going in the morning without a quick one up the hooter. No. I’m actually thinking of the Reynolds defence of qualified privilege for public interest. This is a classic case in English media law, resulting from a lawsuit brought by the Irish politician Albert Reynolds against the Times and the Times‘s appeal to the Lords. The key point is that in some cases, a journalist can defend themselves from a libel suit if they can show that publishing the story in question served a legitimate public interest.
What constitutes a public interest is a good question, and one that changes over time. It is not the same thing as what interests the public, something newspaper editors tend to get wrong. The guideline is points one and two in Lord Nicholls’ judgment, although it’s worth noting that point one (seriousness) is actually an argument against qualified privilege. The Defamation Act 2013, which supersedes Reynolds vs. Times Newspapers, reduces this to a test that the defendant “reasonably believe” that publication is in the public interest.
But the obvious example of something that is in the public interest to publish, and stays that way, is lawbreaking of some sort. That some celebrity is sleeping with the wrong person might once have been obviously in the public interest, but it has got less so over the years, and one day it will no longer be so. Cocaine is illegal, though. This is why so many of their stories involved it, and why so many of their reporters spent so much time partaking of it with their subjects, encouraging their subjects to buy it, and indeed sometimes supplying it.
This was rather perfect; it may be illegal, but it is not all that illegal, especially not in practice, so police involvement would be fairly unlikely even if the reporter was covered in the stuff from head to toe. And of course their links with the Met helped. However, it is illegal enough to bat away threats of litigation with some confidence.