Scarcely has the press been so intensely political or politics so shamelessly journalistic since the end of the nineteenth century. At that time one in ten MPs came from Fleet Street and nearly every paper was the blatant organ of one party or another. In Andy Coulson we have both the symptom and the potential cure of this most pernicious of political ills, which reappears every so often like the pathogen of some accursed medieval plague.
The basic problem for the “free press” in the 19th century was that it simply didn’t pay. This meant that proprietors saw their publications as luxury items, useful only as tools to gain status or seats in parliament for unspecified “services to the party”. The scribblers they employed were scarcely more exalted, often succumbing to the same temptation to cash in their chips with a ruling elite.
This unholy alliance between press and politics was only broken when two remarkable journalists, Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) of the Daily Mail and W. T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, realised that the status quo was not the only option. While the former was driven by a desire to become fantastically rich, Stead believed it to be an editor’s duty to stand in permanent opposition to every government, holding a mirror up to the hypocritical morality of the age.
Yet today it is only Harmsworth who is remembered. This is partly because the kind of journalism he invented was essentially the forerunner of the cheap, brainless, entertainment that seems to be the driving force of our popular culture today. Stead’s vision, by contrast, was far more ambitious, leading him to pioneer the sort of investigative journalism that has never been fully embraced by the mainstream in this country. This is well demonstrated by the combining of both men’s traditions on the lurid pages of The News of the World; a newspaper that combines noble causes with gross levity far more successfully than any of its rivals.
Stead’s notion of journalist as moral crusader led him to expose child prostitution in Victorian London. However, as the subsequent investigation of his original claims showed, he was not above deliberately misleading the public to get the story he wanted. It is likely that Coulson would respect such tactics, which—whatever may be said against them—did succeed in having the age of consent raised from thirteen to sixteen by way of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. But he would do well to take note of the scorn that the same crusading editor heaped on his fellow journalists who “abandoned journalism for politics.” Stead viewed it as impossible to serve Fleet Street and Downing Street with any purpose (not to say integrity), either simultaneously or consecutively.
Like Alastair Campbell and Damien McBride before him, Coulson has effectively ignored this sage piece of Fleet Street wisdom. He obviously thinks that newspapers are all but finished, so finds the best market for his skills working for Number Ten. But what he brings to his new position is much less valuable than what he has taken away from his old profession. Though we may deplore phone-tapping and other “dark arts”, most people would rather that they were practiced by independent reporters than the Prime Minister’s highly-paid Director of Communications. Moreover, most people would prefer to read a newspaper controlled by a Stead or a Coulson than a Harmsworth, especially now that cheap entertainment is available in so many places other than the newsstand.
Such editors also offer the press its only real chance of survival in this fiercely competitive world of virtual monopolies and ostensibly “free” news on the internet. As has long been clear, print media cannot survive on the celebrity gossip, mindless opinion columns and crosswords alone. Only the kind of investigative journalism pioneered by Stead seems capable of recapturing a mass audience, as was clear during the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of the expenses scandal and, indeed, The News of the Worlds recent discovery of possible corruption in the world of cricket.
If the life of this kind of journalist seems more precarious than that of the beneficed spin-doctor, it is worth considering the fate that currently hangs over Mr Cameron’s special adviser. The fact is that both careers tend to end in martyrdom; the only difference is that the public is much more likely to be sympathetic to a law-breaking investigative journalist than a deviant “director of communications”. For this reason, people working in the media should stick to what they’re good at: shining “the disinfectant of sunlight” into the dark recesses of power. If that leads them into the dock, so much the better. Working for the law-makers only brings themselves and both their professions into disrepute.