Paul McMullan is probably not the best defender of press freedom. His arguments are muddled and contradictory. He puts forward moral arguments for privacy intrusion, but then confesses to having no moral sense. Yet he is worth listening to, partly because his arguments clearly reflect the views of others working in newspapers, and partly because – as Nick Davies said at the City University debate on phone hacking last night – he is the one of the only ones “who had the bollocks to speak on the record” about phone hacking and other ‘dark arts’ practiced at the News of the World.
McMullan was a features executive and member of the News of the World’s investigations team. He now runs a pub in Dover. He told Nick Davies at the Guardian that “Getting information from confidential records, we did that regularly, time and time again. I always hid behind the journalist’s fundamental get-out clause that, if it’s in the public interest, you can do what you like. Some of what Steve [Whittamore] did was legal, like using the electoral register, but if he went a step further, I would not have given a second thought to whether that was illegal, because that’s part of your job.”
McMullan was one of six panellists debating how far a journalist should go, to a packed auditorium of 400+ students and journalists at City. Also on the panel were Guardian journalist Nick Davies, solicitor Mark Lewis, Professor Roy Greenslade, Max Mosley and Lord (Ken) MacDonald (former DPP), chaired by Andrew Caldecott QC.
For McMullan journalism pursues noble ends by ignoble means. It exposes corruption, hypocrisy, misbehaviour and moral transgressions. This is his justification not just for phone hacking but for delving deep into the private lives of public figures. If they hold themselves up as figures of public virtue, he argued, then the press should be able to show people when that is not true. We have a right to expose “dirty little sinners… breaking their marriage vows”, McMullan said.
Nor is it just public figures, but anyone who might have done something wrong. McMullan was particularly proud of a News of the World splash he worked on that ‘named and shamed’ 50 peadophiles in the UK, publishing their names, photographs and addresses in the paper. Unfortunately, as Roy Greenslade pointed out, not all of those named were paedophiles and a number later successfully sued the paper for defamation.
Privacy, for McMullan, is just another word for secrecy, and secrecy should be exposed. “Privacy is the place where we do bad things” McMullan said. “In order to have a free and open society, you must treat privacy as the demon”. Though the former NotW journalist may have been exaggerating for the sake of effect, the idea that journalists should have a right to invade people’s privacy for the greater benefit of society is shared by others. Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of Mail Group Newspapers, made a similar argument in one of his rare public outings in November 2008:
“if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process” (Paul Dacre, Society of Editors, 9 November 2008).
Yet there are many contradictions inherent in McMullan’s argument. He does not indicate whether there should be different rules for ‘public figures’ as against ‘ordinary people’. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on Monday night, ‘Tabloids, Tories and Telephone Hacking’, interviewed a woman who had been the victim of a sexual assault by a celebrity. She was not herself a celebrity. She had not chosen to be assaulted. She had asked for, and been granted, legal anonymity by the court. Yet she was traced, pursued and harassed by journalists and photographers because – it would appear – her personal details were hacked.
Nor is it clear what constitutes ‘a public figure’ and whether public figures deserve some privacy protection as well. Politicians are public figures but are those that head the Federation International de l’Automobile (as Mosley did)? Mr Dacre is a public figure, yet he is highly protective of his own privacy, as are other newspaper editors, owners and executives like Richard Desmond and Rebekah Brooks (of News International). And we read very little about Dacre, Desmond or Brooks in the press. Only The Independent, for example, published the news that Richard Desmond’s divorce went through this week.
Celebrities are clearly public figures, but less clear is whether exposing their private lives is in the public interest. But, the argument goes, they are role models, and often deliberately expose their private lives for their own benefit; therefore the press are justified in publishing stories that appear to contradict a celebrity’s public persona. Yet, as Max Mosley pointed out, people do not go to watch John Terry because he is a good family man, they go to see him play football. On top of which, there is something sinister about the fact that the News of the World, we learn, keeps ‘dossiers’ on public figures and celebrities.
Eventually McMullan’s defence defaulted to the public. “The bigger jury is the readership” he said. If people do not approve of the stories than they will stop buying the paper, and then the paper will have to publish less intrusive stories.
This argument falls down on many fronts. People used to flock to public executions, but that was not used as a justification to maintain the death penalty. In addition to which, people did not know how the News of the World, and other newspapers, were finding their stories until the Guardian and the New York Times started investigating it.
Which brings us to the final irony in McMullan’s argument. If transparency is such a public good, why has News International reportedly paid out almost £2 million already to prevent files held by the police coming into the public domain? Wouldn’t it be to the benefit of everyone if these files – which purportedly have details of thousands of examples of privacy intrusion by the press – were opened up so we could judge for ourselves whether they were done in the public interest?
Other blogs about the City University #phonehacking debate:
- ‘Phone hacking: ex-News of the World journalist ‘tapped up’ by police‘ Josh Halliday
- ‘Mosley and McMullan ‘star’ in News of the World phone-hacking debate‘ Roy Greenslade
- ‘Nick Davies apologises to the News of the World‘ Jon Slattery
- ‘Privacy or press freedom? journalism needs to juggle both‘ Wannabe Hacks