Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 6 December 2011

Hacked off.

WHEN a man in a car factory has a bad day at work, the car may get put together wrong and end up killing or injuring someone.

The same is true of doctors and nurses, engineers, architects and a host of other trades; those who are teachers and lawyers, shelf-stackers, till assistants, cleaners, carpet fitters and so on are less likely to maim with a mistake but still make them nevertheless, with unseen and sometimes serious consequences.

When a journalist has a bad day at work, there's usually a massive rollocking from The Editor, a series of difficult questions from The Lawyer and The Reader gets upset.

They are upset; it may be very, awfully, badly, terribly upset, but it is just upset. No-one's ever died or been injured from the occasional mistakes I've made in print. I had someone phone up threatening suicide once when I was on a local paper and aged only 18, which was pretty hairy at the time, but I got her friend and the police round to her house as quick as I could and it turned out she was distressed we hadn't reported her gripe against the local council's wobbly pavement. It wasn't that wobbly, you see.

Despite our low murder rate it seems journalists are considered a more destructive, unpleasant and socially detrimental force at the moment than any other profession. The Leveson inquiry - which I have forsworn to pass comment on until after it reaches its conclusions - is the first time I can recall that an inquiry into a public scandal has been held before the court case. It is yet to examine the other players in the phone-hacking debacle: the police and Prime Minister Dishface, to name but two.

Yesterday staff of a political lobbying firm run by a pal of Maggie Thatcher was exposed on camera saying pretty much anything to a prospective client in order to get their business, including promises of direct access to the PM, which has been met with a total lack of surprise among most of us because it's what most industries would do to gain a competitive advantage. Last year a similar sting was carried out on tabloid journalists, who in the same way agreed to meet someone who said they had a story, tried to persuade them not to take it elsewhere, said they'd talk to the boss and be in touch. The film-makers didn't wait to hear the answer, perhaps because had they done so the hacks would have either turned them over or told them the story was impossible to use for legal reasons. But the docu on the journos is the one being heard about by that inquiry today, without any of the hacks involved being invited to explain why it's only half the story.

Meanwhile the four swordsmen trying to bring about a newspocalypse - Zac Goldsmith, Steve Coogan, Max Mosley and Hugh Grant - have paraded their personal disdain for the trade that has repeatedly embarrassed them in front of a Parliamentary committee on privacy and injunctions.

What's under the table?

They have every right to an opinion and to be heard; but perhaps with a large dose of salt.

While I have immense sympathy for people thrown unwillingly onto the news agenda by life's misfortune or by being the recipient of any of these men's sexual attentions, I am not prepared to set my moral compass according to the whims of these boorish examples of humanity who have, variously: cheated on the mother of his three children with his sister-in-law while preparing to run for office, cheated on his wife with two lap-dancers while funding the international drugs trade and seeking tabloid publicity for his projects, engaged in appalling and violent rape scenarios far worse than 'ze spanking' we all joke about, and according to rumour indulged in behaviour which means that should we be introduced I will never, and I mean NEVER, shake his hand.

And no, I can't tell you. I don't know it's true, it's not in the public interest, and it would flout that man's right to a private life unless he or someone close to him decides to make it public.

And that's rather my point - there are lots of laws which say what I can and can't do, and I stick to them. Sometimes I screw up and when that happens I try to fix it as quickly as possible, and sometimes the toerags I annoy try to use those rules to score a point at my expense. There are rules for car mechanics too, for architects and policemen and nurses and carers. Sometimes bad people couldn't care less for the rules, and sometimes they have a bad day at the office. On the rare occasions members of a particular profession cause a public outrage - organ harvesting at hospitals, for example - we allow the legal system to run its course, hold an inquiry, punish those responsible and tighten the rules to make sure it can't happen again. But when have we ever decided to legislate a trade out of existence?

There are no judicial public inquiries investigating the Coalition's failure to fix the economy, while much of the rest of Europe is improving; why Milly Dowler's killer wasn't caught before he killed again; the ties between Government ministers and lobby firms; last summer's riots; the fact the trumpeted "lasting economic legacy" of next year's Olympics is going to be an even bigger debt than we already have; or the number of elderly and children struggling below the poverty line. And we still don't have a clue where Madeleine McCann is.

I am fine with the fact it's journalism's turn to be under scrutiny; I am fine with it being the fault of relatively few people, and that I've spent my entire career being treated as something less than human in return for seeing humanity at its best and worst. I am absolutely not fine with being likened to a guard at Auschwitz, which is what Zac Goldsmith said yesterday in a gross overegging of the pudding before he realised he was an idiot and backtracked.

But let's make one thing clear: a privacy law would not have saved Maddie's family from press attention, favourable or otherwise, especially when two police forces and their own spokesman were briefing newspapers. It would not have protected murdered Jo Yeates' landlord Chris Jefferies from police who arrested and held him for three days without good reason or journalists who temporarily forgot their law training, and nor would it have stopped Milly's voicemail being listened to by a private detective acting criminally while she was the missing subject of a nationwide search.

The rules as they stand protect everyone if obeyed and exercised correctly; a privacy law, were one introduced, would be used only by those with something to hide. This week I have already seen the Press Complaints Commission invoked to threaten one journalist over a perfectly anodyne story and another for proving a public servant wasn't doing their job properly. As a result I'm all for our rules being tightened, because if the idiots that abuse the system are stopped then the people with genuine complaints are going to get a fairer hearing.

No journalist worth the name wants to upset The Reader. But it is my job to upset everyone else and I am going to carry on doing that whether the likes of Hugh Grant approves of it or not.

Keep your hands where we can see them.