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

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Watching the detectives.

MISS Marple was an arrogant cow.

Hercule Poirot was an interfering little twit. Sam Spade had zero qualifications. And Sherlock Holmes? TOSSER.

Each was a self-appointed detective, and because they were fictional got away with poking around murder scenes, annoying the police and spotting the poisoner in ways that real human beings would be barred from even trying.

In real life, they'd be running the local Neighbourhood Watch, bombarding the local councillors with Freedom of Information requests, and boring the socks off everyone in the pub.

Yesterday Nick Clegg, who in the great liberal tradition wants an end to a free press, found himself on the back foot over a sex scandal which does not involve any sex but which nevertheless has mired him in claims of a cover-up and a leadership crisis.

So he did what everyone does when they're on the rough end of journalistic enquiry, which is to complain about the journalists rather than whatever it is they're looking at.

He said: "There are many people who want to appear as self-appointed detectives trying to piece together events that happened many years ago. But the only way that we are going to get to the bottom of the truth, the only way we are going to ensure that the women... are properly listened to, the only way we are going to establish exactly what happened and who knew what and when, is by allowing the two investigations that I established... to do their job."

Which is a flowery way of saying 'hey, a scandal about whether I knew one of my mates was a sex pest is best investigated by me, not you, now naff off you pesky little proles'.

It also makes him sound a lot like Inspector Slack dismissively telling Miss Marple not to worry her little head about things. So let's do what Miss Marple would, and put our heads on one side, purse our lips, and say: "Really?"

Because the thing about self-appointed detectives, and the journalists Cleggy was having a pop at, is that we are ordinary citizens. We are not different, or special, nor given any extra rights to information, although it is different for our American cousins.

As such, if you crack down, stop, abuse, regulate, bully, control, or complain about the nosiness of reporters you are actually doing all those things to everyone else as well. Because not only are we trained hacks no different in law to the rest of the country, but - much as it pains me to say this - we are all journalists now.

If you have a blog, if you tweet, or update your Facebook status, you are publishing information. It might be trivial and silly, it might be about your lunch, or it might be a picture of what you believe to be one of Jamie Bulger's killers, the name of a rape victim, or a diatribe about your horrible ex.

Either way you are subject to laws about contempt of court, defamation, injunctions, and any one of thousands of other regulations about what you can say and how you can say it. Getting it wrong can mean jail or tens of thousands of pounds in damages, particularly if you get it wrong about someone richer than you.

All that sets us journalists apart from others is an ability to hold our booze and an inability to give up, coupled with the fact most of us had those laws drummed into us as trainees and it's second nature to bear them in mind.

So you see, if my nosiness is to be made illegal, then you would have to stop gossipping about your neighbours. If I am unable to write something without informing the subject of my words first, then you will be unable to update your Facebook to say you just saw Max Moseley at the London Dungeon. When journalists talk about freedom of the Press we're accused of defending our own interests, but in fact we're defending yours too.

There are many ways newspaper stories can start, but these days a fair majority can come from something seen online. A whisper on the web, in this massively interconnected world, can be front page if it checks out.

And think about the things we wouldn't know if it weren't for self-appointed detectives, either those in the Press or people sniffing stuff out and handing it on to us:

Watergate, Betsygate, Camillagate, Thalidomide, Profumo, the dodgy dossier which led to the Iraq War, pretty much everything about Scientology, the phone-hacking scandal, the Prime Minister's friendship with alleged phone-hackers, the errors made in reporting the phone-hacking scandal, the fact the BBC knew Jimmy Savile was a pervert and didn't report on it, Jeffrey Archer paying off a prostitute, MPs' expenses and the 1,200 who died unnecessarily at Stafford Hospital and those are just off the top of my head.

It was a Victorian newspaper investigation into child prostitution which led MPs to raise the age of consent to 16. It was nosy parkers who got Fred Goodwin stripped of his knighthood after his bank got a £45bn bailout while he was busy having a fling covered up with a injunction. It is professional pryers who are pointing out just how much we're being fleeced by our energy companies.

It was self-appointed detectives who found out Nick Clegg had 'dealt with' claims of sexual harassment by not investigating them.

It is us - normal citizens, and journalists alike - who keep an eye on the powerful. Whether it is our politicians, the police, hospital managers or journalists who've gone to the bad, it's a perfectly good system of self-appointed detectives all keeping tabs on one another and it's worked pretty well so far.

And in the modern era, we all know that every error from a grammar crime all the way up to a state-cover up is just a single tweet, status update or post away from being public knowledge, forever to be found at the end of a Google search.

I'm not a self-appointed detective, because someone else picked me for the job and trained me to know my arse from my elbow and not wind up in court. But you are, whatever job you do, and somehow or another every single thing we talk about protects and defends the freedoms of the other 62.6million people in Britain, and a fair few more around the world.

I think that's a fairly spectacular, worthy, brilliant and ultimately democratic thing. Keep one doing it, whether it's about your lunch or what your local council's up to.

Because if it pisses off Nick Clegg, we're one up.

Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough.