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John-Paul McCarthy: Even Sherlock Holmes bribed his army of informants

JUDGE Leveson's fascinating expose of media malfeasance in Britain may have claimed James Murdoch's scalp -- but it has also raised unrealistic expectations about the possibility of building a squeaky-clean form of investigative journalism in the future.

After all, even the great Sherlock Holmes used to bribe witnesses while greasing the palms of his small armada of "street Arab" informants!

British Education Secretary Michael Gove did his best to inject some realism into the debate, if only by reminding people that most of the jaw-dropping revelations unearthed last week were already illegal.

Gove was asking, I think, if it is possible to arrange a surgical strike here, one that uproots the more operatic illegalities in question while giving the press the breathing space to cut a few more modest corners.

Like the British, we're already amply protected in Ireland from media madness, at least in the formal sense of there being tough libel laws in place to deal with the more delinquent elements.

As ever though, the internet comes like a ghost to trouble joy because it has provided an easy berth for those who find that their particular perspectives cannot be accommodated in a society that values privacy rights.

American First Amendment scholars hilariously refer to a phenomenon known as speech of 'slight social value'. Anytime the US Supreme Court tackles a particular type of First Amendment case, speech of 'slight social value' shakes its gory locks and I think of our own Phoenix magazine. The Phoenix strives mightily to lower intellectual standards across the board in each issue. Born in workplace jealousies, and held together by our sad fixation with other people's misfortunes, this outfit comes down to us today freighted with all the paranoia that once sustained DP Moran's newspaper, The Leader, around 1900.

Moran benefited from the general consensus that public debate on issues of national importance should be robust, uninhibited and wide open. Like the Phoenix, Moran took more than he contributed to national life.

This is the point in the column when I'm supposed to pledge myself to defend to the death its right to publish its fortnightly dose of 'satire' -- but in its case I can barely muster a shrug.

The lawyer Paul Tweed explains in his new book Privacy and Libel Law why you shouldn't be ashamed to admit a desire to silence certain braying, Phoenix-like voices, especially when those voices attack the dignity of vulnerable minorities the way RTE attacked the helpless Catholic priest, Father Reynolds, last year.

But then again maybe the South African judge Albie Sachs was right on the 'satire' issue when he wrote in the famous Laugh-It-Off case that "humour is one of the great solvents of democracy. It permits the ambiguities and contradictions of public life to be articulated in non-violent forms. It promotes diversity. It enables a multitude of discontents to be expressed in a myriad of spontaneous ways. It is an elixir of constitutional health."

Those are noble sentiments, for sure, but they seem overly indulgent when applied to an organ of anonymous resentments like the Phoenix.

But that said, the lowest common denominator has always found its megaphone in Irish life. Maybe they contribute something I can't quite appreciate, and maybe it doesn't do any good to expect every publication to be as piously highbrow as the New Left Review.

As John B Keane told us time and again, thousands of Irish citizens gleefully received their smuggled copy of the News of the World every week in the Forties, its brown paper covering disarming nosy clerical glares.

Like its brother Rough-and-Tumble, Slap-and-Tickle surely serves sundry human needs.

And equally important values were also served recently by those inner-city Dublin daily tabloids that helped shatter Martin McGuinness's presidential campaign at a time when RTE seemed inclined to treat him like every other campaigner.

One of the reasons I can't get too worked up about Leveson is because of a nagging feeling that there are bigger problems around, other than the oafish values of our celebrity culture.

Remember how McGuinness summoned Miriam O'Callaghan for a private audience, after she did nothing more than read his IRA resume live on air? No-one seemed too bothered that the star reporter on the national broadcaster could be subjected to intimidation by one of the IRA leaders who gave us Enniskillen and no-warning pub bombs in England.

Maybe the tirades of McGuinness and the Phoenix are the price we pay for living in a republic. But let no-one call them elixirs of our democratic life. They are the waste-waters that are inseparable from the larger ocean where we reside.

Sunday Independent