What would Arthur Christiansen have made of Leveson?

Arthur Christiansen
Arthur Christiansen: “I deplore it.”

As we approach a crossroads in the history of media ethics, much of the debate can be boiled down to the question of how acceptable it is to intrude into people’s lives in pursuit of a story.

So while recently reading the autobiography of Arthur Christiansen, the legendary editor of the Daily Express from the 1930s to the 1950s, I was interested to discover his views on press intrusion.

Given Christiansen’s famous advice that journalists should “always, always tell the news through people”, I was surprised to find just how nuanced his views were. Certainly, he was more ambivalent about prying into people’s personal lives than many of witnesses representing the media at the Leveson Inquiry.

He wrote:

People who court publicity must take the rough with the smooth; Royalty cannot help but receive publicity and have learned to accept most of it with good grace; but the pestering by reporters of people who are unfortunate or unhappy and who do not wish any part of it is not what I had in mind when as a young man I tried to open out ‘the human angle’.

When a murderer was hanged I wanted to know how his children were faring; when a girl rocketed to stardom I wanted to know what her parents had contributed. I wanted to know about people – humble, unimportant people as well as those who were established.

But the idea got out of hand. The human story, like the size of headline type, seems often nowadays to be sought ruthlessly at the sacrifice of taste, sense and decent feeling… I deplore it.

I should add that Headlines All My Life, published in 1961, is a brilliant book that gives a fascinating insight into newspaper history. Although out of print, it can be picked up for under £10 on Amazon.