Scurrilous and scabrous journalism can be a good thing

Writing in today’s Thunderer, barrister and former UK Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald QC presents a solid case against privacy laws which protect the powerful, rich and famous, and work against a free and open society.

One particular passage stands out for me:

“We have a rich tradition of scurrilous, even scabrous, journalism in this country. From 18th-century pamphleteers mocking and abusing greedy and licentious monarchs, to Private Eye happily taking on libel lawyers with occasionally juvenile gusto. Sometimes the effect of this is merely crude. On other more important occasions it can represent a critical strand of popular control over the governing process. It is sometimes quite difficult to have one consequence without the other. And because the possibility of exposure is such an important aspect of accountability in a functioning democracy, our conclusion should be to sacrifice neither.”

As Macdonald goes on to say, the public interest is not necessarily the same thing as what the public are interested in. But that doesn’t justify restricting press freedom, or even guiding its output via moral pressure from on high.

The only thing I would add is a condemnation of the hypocrisy of celebrities, politicians and the like who support curbs on what may or may not be reported of their activities, public or private. These people depend on publicity to preserve their status, and they cannot be allowed to control the message through their PR machines. We are all of us accountable for our actions, where they impact on our public persona and moral character.

If, for example, a leading motorsports industry insider is secretly filmed engaging with prostitutes in a Nazi-themed orgy, I would say that it is in the public interest to report the story. For one thing it shows that the individual concerned has a defective moral compass, and should not be trusted.