Who you gonna call?

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.

Smearing people is wrong (mostly)

I don’t know about you, but in all the coverage of the unappealing McBride/Draper Smeargate nonsense, at least one thing was reassuringly clear: the press is totally, completely opposed to harmful insinuations that damage the reputations of public figures. Well, obviously, there’ll be times when newspapers report unsubstantiated and embarrassing allegations about the shadow chancellor’s wife – or, as you might say if you were feeling uncharitable, repeats and publicises them, making them even more destructive. But what are newsrooms supposed to do apart from churn out this sort of thing?

And then there are some times when it’s just really, really important to come up with something bad to say about someone. In the interests of balance. Like, say, if that someone is Nick Davies, author of a study of the endemic distortions and corruptions in the British press, and you happen to be a journalist on one of the distorting and corrupt papers. Then it’s basically essential that you ring him up and tell him you’re going to publish some “grotesque sexual smear” about a wife he doesn’t even have. Otherwise, how are you going to defend the honour of your paper as a reliable organ of responsible newsgathering?

Then, there are the people who might not have actively attacked your newspaper, but have somehow slighted you. Such as Nicola Fisher, who employed Max Clifford to represent her after being twatted in the face by riot police, and went on to give interviews to the Northern And Shell newspapers. With Nicola sitting on the front covers of the Star and the Express, it would be frankly remiss for Sun and the Mail to fail to say something nasty about her.

It can be something really simple: just drawing attention to the Clifford connection and throwing some scare quotes on phrases like “victim”, “hit” and “anti-capitalist” goes a long way to suggest that Fisher might really just be a violent opportunist who’s drawn on the baton-bruise with eyeliner. Or you could go big like the Mail and put together a balls-out character assassination:

Mail attack piece on Nicola FisherThat extract appears in search results for “Nicola Fisher” on the Mail website, although if you click on the link it redirects to the index, suggesting that the story has now been withdrawn. Not that it matters: the story did its bit to spike the opposition’s exclusive, and it set the tone for the reporting on Fisher, which includes beautiful examples like this column in the Yorkshire Post from Bill Carmichael, setting up Fisher as a punchable harpy. “If anyone ever deserved a good slap, this woman certainly did”, says Carmichael, pleased that law and order is free to do the important work of, um, silencing people he disagrees with by hitting them.

Smearing, then: totally harmful to the body politic and a dangerous exploitation of journalism. Just imagine what the papers would be saying about Osborne, Davies and Fisher if one of them had been involved in anything as disgraceful as smearing.