8 July 2011 – Crocodile tears from the Murdoch camp, from Downing Street and from the Leader of the Opposition will assuage none of the public’s concerns about the state of UK journalism and the unhealthy relationship between the press, politicians and the police.
We need root and branch reform of the regulatory system for the print, broadcasting and online media. We welcome the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that we can get on with this straight away while the police and a judge sort out the rest of the legal mess surrounding the phone hacking scandal.
With his call for transparency and a fresh start, what a pity the Prime Minister did not announce the ending of the lobby system, which enables senior politicians and their advisors to set the agenda through anonymous tip offs to journalists.
The closure of the News of the World is a classic ‘crisis management’ move – act promptly, assure customers that things will be put right, then re-launch with a new brand image when the dust has settled.
Hacking into people’s mobile phones is only the latest in a long line of illicit activities by journalists seeking salacious headlines and prurient stories. On behalf of members of the public whose lives have been wrecked by unethical reporting we have been warning the PCC and Select Committees about all manner of press misbehaviour for almost 20 years. For whatever reasons, and fear of the power of the press may only be one of them, we have seen little change.
That fear has meant it has always been difficult to obtain the funds and support needed to take on the press. We followed up our highly critical 2004 report on the PCC (Satisfaction Guaranteed?) with a campaign backed by the NUJ on Journalism and Public Trust. It was timely then, but ran into the sand for lack of take up by politicians and funders.
The behaviour of journalists and executives at the News of the World is not the whole story. As long ago as 2006 the then Information Commissioner revealed that over 300 journalists from 32 publications had obtained over 3,000 items of personal information by illegal means from just one private investigator. There are many more than two working for national newspapers and news agencies. One of the offending newspapers was the Daily Mail – whose editor Paul Dacre chairs the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee and berates those who dare to criticise the PCC. It’s time newspaper editors came clean about any underhand methods they have used in the past.
Ed Miliband’s suggestion that a new form of self-regulation could mirror the systems used by doctors and solicitors is a dangerous one – since it would require the licensing of journalists, which is inimical to press freedom. What we need is a credible system that is independent of the media industries and parliament. That does not mean it could not be funded by both. It needs teeth which only statutory underpinning can provide, so that those who do not comply with its ruling risk proceedings for contempt. The industry-funded PCC has always rejected a sliding scale of fines and modest compensation for victims – but present payouts should mean that old chestnut is kicked into the long grass.
MediaWise (originally PressWise) was formed back in 1992 after Clive Soley’s Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill failed to reach the statute book – under sustained criticism from Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun. It proposed an independent body which would promote ethical standards, protect press freedom and investigate and adjudicate on complaints. Its aims were simple, laudable, workable and fit for current purpose. It is time it was dusted off and brought up to date. Given the changed media environment, with convergence of both technologies and ownership, we now need a single body covering news and current affairs content across all platforms.