We are opposed to this in all its forms, but most especially when it involves payment to witnesses in criminal cases. Chequebook journalism is inimical to press freedom since it normally involves the purchase of exclusive publication rights. We do not accept ‘the public interest defence’ for buying up exclusive access, since if information is in the public interest it should not have a price tag, and journalists should be keen to share the material. (See our briefing on chequebook journalism, our briefing paper on media payments to witnesses and our leaflet What’s the cost of selling your story to the papers?. You can also read two PressWise commentaries on the Ronnie Biggs/Sun case here)
Communications technology: convergence & regulation
We have taken the view that as the technologies of print and broadcasting converge through digitisation so common regulatory systems should apply, both to increase access and to ensure coherence in codes of conduct for journalists across the print and broadcast media. We support the notion of harmonised cross-border regulations in technical standards, universality of access etc but favour national (culturally coherent) regulation in terms of content, complaints and redress. (See our briefing)
We support the view that individuals should have the right to access any material about them held by a third party, especially if it is held electronically and is capable of available for publication or sale. They must also have the right to correct inaccuracies, and to request electronic tagging where the authenticity of information is in dispute. We support exemptions for the media during the gathering of research (eg. we oppose ‘prior restraint’) and the protection of sources, but the access rights of the subject must be honoured once material has been published or offered for sale. (See our briefing)
Freedom of Information
We have always promoted Freedom of Information as a prerequisite for real press freedom. We regard the draft Freedom of Information Bill as grossly inadequate, and clearly designed to protect the civil service in particular from meaningful enquiry. We would urge the government, at the very least, to return to the proposals in its White Paper. Preferably, it should enact the pledges given while in Opposition (especially the Bill prepared some years ago by Mark Fisher MP).
We support the abolition of the current libel laws, which only serve to protect the rich and powerful, often from criticism and investigation in the public interest. We do not see the recent reforms as enhancing the rights of ordinary people. Our view is with the Human Rights Act, the Data Protection Acts, a more effective system of press regulation together with comprehensive Freedom of Information legislation should provide sufficient protection against abuse of media power for the libel laws to be repealed altogether.
The Press Complaints Commission
Experience has shown that even equipped with an improved Code of Practice following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the PCC remains a flawed and ineffective body. Flawed, because no commission funded by the newspapers upon which it adjudicates, and working to a code produced by the very editors liable to censure, can possibly inspire public confidence. Ineffective, because it is powerless to impose meaningful sanctions. While opposed to statutory regulation of the press, we think that the PCC should be reconstituted as follows:
a. A membership comprised of the general public and working journalists (not editors), who would produce a revised code.
b. Funding via a levy on all daily and weekly newspapers proportional to their circulation.
c. The power to receive and consider complaints from third parties (following the pattern of broadcasting’s regulatory bodies)
d. The power to require financial compensation for individual victims of media abuse (but not fines per se).
(See our briefing papers: PCC – History and procedural reform and PCC procedures)
We are opposed to a Privacy Law specifically designed to limit the media, on similar grounds to our objection to the laws of libel. The protection of privacy, we believe, will be adequately dealt with by the Human Rights Act, which balances the right to privacy with the right to freedom of expression. (See our briefing)
Right of Reply
We entirely support the view that members of the public should be guaranteed a right of reply when the mass media publish inaccurate or misleading material about them. It is incontrovertible that many individuals, with little knowledge of media processes, who get caught in the media spotlight, suffer harm and have inadequate remedies in law or via the regulatory systems. (See our position paper)