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Hypocritical 'Star' rift is about profit, not ethics

The Irish Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A real value – the importance of a free press – is so degraded in this squalid row that it loses all meaning, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE


IF THE definition of absurd is two bald men fighting over a comb, the definition of creepiness must be two middle-aged men fighting over some Peeping Tom pictures of a young woman’s semi-naked body. The creeps in question are the managing director of the Irish Daily Star, Ger Colleran, and the paper’s co-owner Richard Desmond.


Taking pictures of anyone without their knowledge and publishing them without their consent for other people’s sexual gratification is a creepy thing to do. It is not rape but it is in the same category of behaviour – using someone else’s body without their consent. And the analogy is useful: citing the fact that some women court publicity as justification for invading their privacy is essentially the “she was asking for it” defence.


Creepiness is an underrated feeling. It’s the moral instinct at work. (Whenever I’m asked for one piece of advice for young people, I always suggest sticking to the simple principle of never doing anything, in work or in relationships, that makes your flesh crawl.) I have no doubt that Ger Colleran, the Irish Star’s managing director and former editor, who strongly supported the paper’s decision to publish the photographs of Kate Middleton, has this basic, decent human instinct. I don’t doubt that if the woman in question were his daughter, he’d know exactly what to do. So what dissolves those instincts? The most powerful corrosive in the world: the pursuit of corporate profit.


What’s been happening in the dispute over the future of the Irish Daily Star has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with money; short-term Irish profit versus long-term British profitability. But since it doesn’t do to say this clearly, there has to be a pretence that values are at stake. The problem is that in the course of this squalid row between rival creeps, a real value – the importance of a free press – is so degraded by hypocrisy that it loses all meaning. Richard Desmond, the Irish Star’s co-owner, who is apparently so outraged by the publication of the pictures that he wishes to close the paper down, is to journalistic ethics what Lady Gaga is to decorum. Here he is at the Leveson inquiry into media standards:


Q: “What interest, if any, do you have in ethical standards within your papers, or is that purely a matter for the editors?”


A: “Well, ethical, I don’t quite know what the word means, but perhaps you’ll explain what the word means, ‘ethical’ . . . we don’t talk about ethics or morals because it’s a very fine line and everybody’s ethics are different.”


To take just one example, between September 2007 and January 2008, Desmond’s Daily Express ran 38 defamatory articles about the parents of the missing toddler Madeleine McCann, culminating in the suggestion that they themselves had killed her.


At Leveson, Desmond defended this on the grounds that the case was like that of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: everyone had a theory as to what happened. “If you go into a bar or coffee shop or whatever the thing is, and you start talking about Diana, you will get a view on Diana and you will get a view, and once again I do apologise to the McCanns, you know, etc etc etc, but there are views on – there are views on the McCanns of what happened.” 

Desmond went on to appeal to “free speech” to justify his paper’s printing of whatever trashy rumour came to hand. And Ger Colleran, now supposedly Desmond’s antagonist, cited “freedom of expression and a free press” in defence of the publication of the Kate Middleton photos. This is where individual creepiness crosses the line into public scandal.


If press freedom is embodied in the right to publish without consent photographs of naked women, or the right to publish pub gossip as fact, it ought to be abolished. It is not harmless.


It can be a positive social evil – witness the Sun’s vicious lies about the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. Indeed, there is not just no case for a free press, but no case for a professional press at all – if you want photographs of naked celebs or gossip and conspiracy theories masquerading as fact, there’s an infinite supply on the web.


What people such as Desmond really mean by the freedom of the press is their freedom to make money unimpeded by ethical or social obligation. And, for all the hand-wringing, this position is actually the “common sense” of our societies: profit in the marketplace trumps every other consideration. Desmond is unhappy because the photos might damage his businesses in Britain. If he thought otherwise, he’d be justifying their publication by appealing to press freedom. This is why the idea of a genuinely free press is not just a cliche. It is one of the great challenges of the 21st century and one that raises fundamental questions about the relationship between democracy and the market. It involves a conflict – that between public values and the untrammelled pursuit of profit – much more vital than a dispute between creeps.


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