Why we don’t really need to know all the dirty little details

So much for good intentions. After three consecutive columns inspired by President Clinton, I had resolved to give the middle-aged lecher a rest this week. But the story still has PR legs. They belong to Peter Preston, the Guardian’s former editor who hounded ex-Tory Minister Neil Hamilton out of politics and Ian Greer out of British PR in the brown envelopes affair.

So much for good intentions. After three consecutive columns

inspired by President Clinton, I had resolved to give the middle-aged

lecher a rest this week. But the story still has PR legs. They belong to

Peter Preston, the Guardian’s former editor who hounded ex-Tory Minister

Neil Hamilton out of politics and Ian Greer out of British PR in the

brown envelopes affair.



In a recent Guardian column Mr Preston was sickened by the American

media’s treatment of Mr Clinton. He wrote: ’Why do they in every

question, every soundbite, seem so damnably eager? Why do they

perpetually recycle leaks - good, bad and lousy - of legal ’insiders’ as

though they were fact, not sometimes a vicious spin on reality?

Why ... are they arrayed alongside Republicans in the (Congressional)

Committee who wish to pour every word and every picture on to the great

disseminator of the net?’



I never noticed Mr Preston’s objections to soundbites, leaks or help

from Tory opponents when he made a dead set at Margaret Thatcher and

myself in the 1980s. It is a real turn up for the book for him to

blanch, in the Clinton context, at the ’dumping of everything in the

public domain, as a spectacle in embarrassment intended ... to make the

public change their minds’. He used to be mad keen on dumping every word

of mine into the public domain to embarrass the Government.



It would, however, be churlish not to welcome a sinner come to

repentance.



But does his new sensitivity over Mr Clinton being stripped to his

underpants, as George Walden put it in the Evening Standard, herald a

sea change in British journalism - a recognition that, after the media

excesses of the John Major years in pursuing every obscure Tory MP to

his illicit bed and Mr Clinton’s humiliation, that the media’s demand on

both sides of the Atlantic for absolute transparency of public life is

as hypocritical as it is damaging?



The evidence is far from conclusive. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s

dramatic dumping of his wife for his mistress in an airport lounge

suggests they find it eminently commercial to expose the errant

politician. But Mr Cook’s remaining in office hints at a new restraint

at least in respect of Labour politicians. And there is astonishingly

little fuss from the media over the likely delay of freedom of

information legislation which they have sought for years.



Perhaps they are, indeed, growing up. At least Mr Preston has raised the

issue of whether the full monty approach to Government serves

democracy’s purpose. Let us hope that practising, rather than retired,

editors now explain how they propose to resolve the conflict between

their responsibilities to society and their need to sell newspapers and

attract radio and TV audiences. Tony Blair will be all ears, too, as his

conference speech showed.



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