Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Rushbridger Has No More Right to Be Cross Than Any Other Middle-Class Malefactor

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Rushbridger Has No More Right to Be Cross Than Any Other Middle-Class Malefactor

Article excerpt

Last week the Press Complaints Commission delivered two judgments which, taken together, seem highly perplexing. It exonerated the News of the World for paying L10,000 to a convicted criminal who was implicated in the alleged plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham. And it censured the Guardian for paying L720 to a former criminal for writing an article about life in prison alongside Jeffrey Archer. As a result of this second ruling, the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, has reportedly blown several gaskets and has had to be soothed in a darkened room.

The News of the World's, escape is fortunate, to say the least. Readers may remember the case. The paper's legendary sleuth Mazher Mahmood (he who likes dressing up as a sheikh) asked a 27-year-old Kosovan parking attendant called Florim Gashi to find him a story. Florim did. he came up with a plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham, and produced tapes in which he and his pals are heard discussing the idea in a rather lacklustre way. Some people may think that it would have been an extremely good idea if Victoria had been permanently removed from our shores, but that is beside the point. There was, it seems, no plan to kidnap her. Nevertheless, acting on information supplied to them by the News of the World and Florim, the police swooped on the suspected gang and banged up five innocent men for several months until a judge brought an end to the trial. I must say it is very difficult to see how the News of the World was not guilty of something rather serious, though, as I wrote several weeks ago, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were equally at fault in bringing a prosecution.

The Guardian's misdemeanour seems minor by comparison. Last October the ghastly Jeffrey Archer (whom this magazine has valiantly defended) published some prison diaries which were serialised in the Daily Mail. The Mail did not pay Archer, and gave some money to charity. Not wishing to let go the opportunity of kicking a Tory when he is down, the Guardian commissioned a writer and former criminal called John Williams to do a very long article about his time in prison in which Lord Archer played a central role. It was not an altogether flattering piece. The Press Complaints Commission disagreed with the Guardian's, defence that the article was in the public interest, and censured the paper for paying a former criminal, which is contrary to the PCC's code. The intention is that former criminals should not benefit financially from glorifying their own crimes.

Mr Rusbridger, as I say, had to be roped down by colleagues. There was a ballistic first leader in last Friday's Guardian. The editors of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent expressed outrage almost equal to Mr Rusbridger's. An editorial in the Independent was, if anything, even more thunderous than that in the Guardian. 'It is surprising that the Commission should not recognise the difference between a large sum of money for a scandal sheet and a standard fee for serious journalism.' This was perhaps a little sententious even by the standards of the Independent's leader column. Was Mr Williams's article serious journalism? I would say that it was published for the perfectly understandable, even commendable, motive of striking back at Jeffrey Archer. Very possibly such an impulse should be regarded as being in the public interest, but one can understand why the Press Complaints Commission should have taken a narrower view.

Behind this row there is a feeling among broadsheet editors that the PCC is weighted in favour of the tabloids. …

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