A few years ago, few dared to argue with all-powerful newspaper editors who asserted the historic rights of a free press. They were the custodians of an inalienable bulwark of democracy, one that ensured politicians were properly accountable for their conduct.
No matter that press freedom was frequently used to peddle salacious details of personal behaviour highly unlikely to impact on the fitness of the person concerned to carry out professional or public duties.
Ministers saw no votes in the issue. Many also steered clear of it for fear of finding Fleet Street’s finest raking through their dustbins in a bid to ‘expose the truth behind the minister who wants to gag the press’.
Today’s ministers look to European law and individual decisions of UK judges to create Britain’s privacy laws. ‘Privacy by the back door’, scream the editors of papers suddenly rendered far less powerful by plummeting advertising and the migration of readers online.
Many in our industry applaud the imminent better protection for clients’ reputations while regretting Westminster’s hand-washing on the issue.
The new climate offers PR professionals the chance to work increasingly in partnership with trusted legal allies to deliver protection for client reputations. They should, however, beware of the lawyers’ occasional bloodlust. I recently heard a partner from a leading firm suggest to a reputation management conference the possibility of getting an editor jailed.
Such a result might offer an impressive scalp for the lawyer’s belt. It would not, though, do much for the client seeking positive future coverage.
Reputation managers advising on intrusions into privacy should suggest redress rather than revenge. They should ensure the wrong is righted and powerful protection is in place against further intrusions. But at the same time media channels must be kept open.
Bloodthirsty lawyers can unbalance this delicate PR act.
Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun