Time for a public inquiry about media misbehaviour

10 June 2003 – Two top editors at the New York Times have resigned. The reason: the paper owned up to a plagiarism scandal which shook public confidence in the newspaper and its staff.

How refreshing to find editorial executives prepared to fall on their swords because their newspaper has breached journalistic ethics. And how different from the situation in the UK.

To take a few recent examples:

Neil Wallis, now deputy editor of the News of the World, is found by the High Court to have breached the human rights of BBC DJ Sara Cox and her husband by buying and publishing intrusive pictures from their honeymoon hideaway, while editor of its rival The People. No resignation has followed.

A major kidnapping case collapses in court at huge expense to the public purse, simply because the News of the World had paid the agent provocateur – surely a breach of the industry Code of Practice. Again, no one resigned.

Rebekah Wade, a former editor of the NoW, and now editor of its sister paper The Sun, has admitted to a parliamentary committee that police are paid for information. Has she resigned? No. She was ‘promoted’ to The Sun after innocent members of the public were targeted in her ‘name and shame’ campaign against paedophiles.

In the UK we don’t get honourable resignations. All we get are smug assurances from the industry-financed Press Complaints Commission that everything is under control. Quite clearly it is not. It is symptomatic that Neil Wallis who sat on the Commission’s code committee, has remained a member of the PCC throughout. No wonder self-regulation has so tarnished an image. It’s a sham.

Yet the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has announced that the government has no intention of legislating on press regulation, even before she has seen the findings of a Commons Select Committee which has been investigating press misbehaviour for months.* We are supposed to feel reassured that she might intervene if Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun and the News of the World, makes a bid for control of Channel 5 TV.

Two years ago PressWise argued that the time was right for a full-scale independent inquiry into the role of media power in our democracy – to inform the public and encourage debate about the new media environment heralded by the Communications Bill and the arrival of Ofcom.

Current events demonstrate that market forces and self-regulation, the hallmark of Ofcom, offer no guarantees of responsible behaviour by the press. Such an enquiry is long overdue, and the Secretary of State would give herself, her government, the public, democracy and the media a credibility boost if she were to announce one now – to be completed before the next General Election. It is about time everyone was allowed to join in the debate, instead of leaving it to the people who already control what we see, hear and read.

Mike Jempson
Director, The PressWise Trust

* The Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee Report on Privacy and Media Intrusion is set for publication on Monday 16 June.

(Bulletin No 85)

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