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FREEDOM

Sacrificing the Public Interest

[Picture] In the conflict between freedom of the press and the individual right to privacy, investigative journalists traditionally invoke “the public interest” and “the public’s right to know.” But Carlton TV’s role in the latest government sleaze and suppression of news in the public interest reveals that journalistic ethics can be elastic when public good clashes with vested interests.

 T
he ruthless feeding-frenzy attitude of the media at the outset of every newly-uncovered scandal may seem tired and even pointless. But there is little doubt that “sleaze” would be a far worse problem if the threat of public exposure in the media were not present to act as restraint.

     But what if the sleaze trail leads back to the media themselves? Is “the public interest” still so sanctimoniously inviolate?

     Apparently not. And it is more apt cause for outrage.

     At the centre of the current “cash for questions” affair is lobbyist Ian Greer. For the last 15 years, varying sums of money are said to have flowed from, or through, Greer and his lobbying firm Ian Greer Associates—to more than 20 MPs.

     What were the MPs expected to do in return? Raising questions in Parliament of interest to Greer clients appears to have been only one of many “favours.”

     How serious is the sleaze in this case? One sign was the news in October that Pakistan’s foreign ministry had sacked Ian Greer Associates as its £200,000-per-year British public relations firm. Shortly thereafter, the entire Pakistani government was thrown out for allegedly massive and endemic corruption of its own. If the Greer situation was too hot to handle even by that government’s standards, it is no wonder that a number of British MPs are, as The Independent put it, nervously “checking their diaries to see how many times they were entertained.”

     Investigation Abandoned

     The apparent scope of the financial misdealings between Greer and his political contacts makes it even more reprehensible that earlier efforts to expose the lobbyist’s activities were suppressed. And this is where Carlton TV enters the scene.

     Back in 1994, Central Television’s “The Cook Report” had already spotted Ian Greer Associates and had conducted an elaborate information-gathering operation while investigating their story. Programme researchers and businessmen posed as British representatives of an American company with $40 million to invest. The money supposedly came from former Russian communists who had disposed of national art treasures and wanted to “get close to the British government.”

     Documentary evidence showed Greer and his managing director claiming personal friendship with a Who’s Who of British politicians and assuring the “investors” that they could get questions tabled in parliament—in short, blatant bribery and corruption.

     Apart from the noble cause of serving the public interest, The Cook Report was obviously onto an award-winning expose. So why, suddenly, was the investigation dropped?

     Selective Blindness

     A statement from Central TV claimed that the show had been ditched because “The Cook Report deals in substantial investigative stories. This story did not come up to scratch.”

     Really? The Cook Report just had too many other stories going on involving crooked politicians and Russian investors with $40 million in their pockets?

     When news of the programme and its canning hit Parliament, more than 50 MPs joined a motion to compel The Cook Report to make the evidence available to a Commons inquiry into lobbying activities.

     Central TV refused.

     Why?

     Earlier in 1994—but after The Cook Report’s investigation of Greer was well underway—Central TV merged with Carlton. Andy Allan, Carlton’s chief executive, took responsibility for both channels’ programmes.

     As later reports revealed, Carlton was, at the time, a client of Ian Greer Associates. The exact nature of the relationship is not known, but considering the weight with which the axe fell upon the show, one cannot help wondering what services Greer was providing for Carlton.

     Two years later, the extent of Greer’s irregularities has come out anyway. But as the press scrambles to hold up the latest piece of scandal, Carlton’s role in squashing the investigation two years ago has escaped notice—a matter which is itself deserving of closer examination.

     If Carlton executives deliberately suppressed information of illegal activities they should be included in the ongoing inquiries.

     Freedom of the press is a valuable tool for maintaining other democratic freedoms. But an unethical media controlled by vested interests is not free. Indeed, it is a threat to the real interests of the public.

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