Comment: Censoring the media will create a police state

By Richard Hillgrove

The runaway hackgate scandal has become increasingly dangerous for British society.

A silenced media will result in gradual control of information by vested interests, with governments ultimately not questioned to their legitimacy or authority.

The only message will be the centralised controlled managed message – without question.

Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, J K Rowling, Charlotte Church and all in sundry are having a right moan about covert methods being taken to tell the truth.

Yes, breaches of privacy have been made by the media. Some of them appalling, particular in the case of Milly Dowler which crossed the line.

But underlying all of this is an attempt to get to the truth at all costs, using whatever mechanism possible to uncover the truth.

This as opposed to telling made-up stories. Publicists increasingly feed manufactured 'reality pictures' and 'reality stories' of celebrities that compliment and apparently enhance a celebrity's image – but ultimately seem stale, sanitised and boring to the general public.

A news media where there is no real news, because everything is authorised and approved by a vested interest, is a frightening one indeed.

As a publicist I understand the game that is played between celebrities and the media. But there must always be room for journalists to offer a balance, and to do so using alternative means to create that balanced story and not just print whatever they have been told.

If the media gets it wrong and prints a falsehood, we have a judicial system in place for them to be tried and prosecuted.

The same celebrities doing a lot of the complaining in the hacking inquiry have achieved mass appeal often because of the exposure in the mass media of their private lives. Far from being an intrusion, being covered in the tabloids and celebrity magazines is why so many people see Hugh Grant or Sienna Miller's films and why they achieve such high fees for advertising endorsements. The price tag is based on the number of 'viewers'.

Grant's main bugbear was the reporting of the night in 1995 when LA police found him in a compromising position with prostitute Divine Brown.

Without getting 'up close' to your favourite celebrity through the news media and celebrity press, the celebrity would no longer be bankable.

No £1 million OK! or Hello! Magazine exclusive picture rights for a wedding. No £1 million endorsement fee from Fiat, T Mobile, Heineken or British Airways.

Looking back retrospectively at a so-called intrusive media by a celebrity created by that intrusive media doesn't make any sense.
Hugh Grant protests that he hates fame and wishes for a quiet life but won't be left alone. But he keeps making films and promoting them. Following his 2009 comedy At Home With The Morgans, he is currently shooting Cloud Atlas, which will clearly rely on global tabloid press coverage to attract audiences. Sienna Miller likewise has Two Jacks, Yellow, Just Like a Woman and The Trials of Cate McCullough in production. All want the biggest audience possible.

The truth of the matter is the hacking scandal is easy to resolve.

At the end of the day, a change to a mobile phone pin code would result in the voice mail of a mobile phone of a celebrity being unhackable by a journalist.

It's because the default setting has been left on that opportunistic journalists have listened in on voicemails.

We are not talking about aggressive illegal spying activities such as bugging devices planted in people's flats.

There are questions to be asked about intrusion. That needs to be dealt with but ultimately the press still be left to self-regulate on this issue.

The idea of legislating against these journalistic practices is the first step towards an Orwellian future. 1984 is today.

After the traditional tabloid media has been silenced, don't then think freedom lies in the online universe. It is my personal belief that there should be at least a level playing field between the printed media and the online media but if we are not careful even 'personal' correspondence between individuals on Google and Facebook will be legislated against and all social media data become the property of the state.

It is already very easy to aggregate strings of words from millions of people's social media activity to work out what precisely what they are talking about. If this is deemed socially unacceptable, organisations like Twitter, have already shown they are willing to hand over the private details of their members to the authorities.

Facebook and Google might think they are all powerful until world governments say 'thanks for building the framework, now we're in charge'.

Journalists being free to question politicians, governments and the behaviour of large multinational organisations is healthy. And that isn't going to come from attending 1,001 press junkets organised at Google HQ California.

Don't stop journalists being journalists in their noble quest for the truth at all costs. Don't let celebrities weary with fame cloud the importance of press freedom.

Richard Hillgrove is director of Hillgrove PR.

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