The decision by Ian and Dawn Askham (the Scottish couple infected with the world’s sexiest variant of flu) to retain Max Clifford’s publicity services troubles Ivor Gaber, professor of journalism at the University Of Bedfordshire. It troubles him so much he went on PM last week to talk about it in a head-to-head with Clifford:
This is a matter of major public interest and I think it is legitimate for the public to want to know from Mr and Mrs Askham, ‘What did it feel like, what were you symptoms, where did you catch it?’ and I am very uneasy – not just about this particular case but the precedent it is setting – that issues that ought to be in the public domain, that you shouldn’t have to buy a particular newspaper to find out about, are being monopolised and are being sold to the highest bidder.
This is overstating the value of the Askhams and the power of the Clifford by quite a lot: there’s nothing they can tell about their experience that’s more in the public interest than the information which epidemiologists and doctors can supply, and there’s nothing they can say in an exclusive that won’t be carried by every media outlet at the next print run or broadcast. But he’s got a point – anything which restricts the freedom of the press to ask important questions is conceivably a bad thing for reporting. I read Ian Hislop and Alan Rusbriger’s evidence to the select committee on culture, media and sport and nod my thoughtful little head at their concerns about the suppressive effect of a possible privacy law.
But, despite a series of interesting high court rulings on the matter, there is no privacy law as yet. And maybe, suggests PM presenter Eddie Mair, hiring Clifford is the best way for the couple to protect themselves from the extreme interest of the press. Gaber disagrees:
The media’s not this hungry beast waiting to spit people out if they’ve got a story to tell. I can’t imagine that there’d be a newspaper or TV or radio station that would want to take Mr and Mrs Askham to the cleaners. They’d wanna help them tell their story. […] When we’ve got issues like this where there are members of the public who are caught up in matters of major public interest, they don’t need media protection.
This, by the way, is a media including the same organs that libeled someone who happened to be nearby when a child went missing, dug out discrediting stories on victims of police brutality, pillaged Facebook to tell their readers how shameful teenagers are, and, when they can’t turn up the information they’re hoping for, turns to wiretaps and computer monitoring to find it. You know, that old trustworthy media. Clifford’s counter-argument was that the subjects of a story deserve to see some of the financial benefit their story will bring to the press. Maybe they do. But until there’s some kind of buddy system to help people negotiate unexpected press interest – or, I don’t know, a regulatory body that does its job – Clifford is maybe the best investment you could make in a situation like the Askhams’, however much he offends your journalistic ideals.