22 May 2015 – The massive Mirror payouts for invasions of privacy in pursuit of headlines and the bottom line will not be the end of the scandals that have beset the British press in recent years.
We can expect more court cases and more revelations that profit-driven sensationalist journalism is often lazy journalism derived from dubious, if not downright illegal, activities. Journalism’s reputation in the UK has been harmed, perhaps irreparably, by those who allowed or encouraged such unethical, not to say unlawful, practices.
Illicit accessing of people’s bank and phone accounts, health and criminal records, and payments to public officials for information are techniques we have warned about for years. We hope they will now be consigned to the dustbin of history. Muckraking journalists are supposed to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ not dredge the gutters on behalf of those with a taste for salacious gossip. The term is supposed to refer to genuine investigative journalism that exposes corruption and wrong-doing, not pandering to the prurient.
One of the most distasteful aspects of the scandals has been the resistance of proprietors, and some editors, to genuinely independent scrutiny of their own activities, and their wanton disregard of the rights of others. Few journalists and fewer readers have any idea what powerful commercial forces lie behind the titles that dominate the newsstands. The Fourth Estate has become a crypto-Establishment. It is sickening that pressure for repeal of the Human Rights Act has emanated from the very people who claim to be on the side of the powerless.
Despite all the fine talk at the Leveson Inquiry about ending the corrupt relationships between the press and politicians, it is clear that we are now back to business as usual. To the delight of some the worst offenders in terms complaints about unethical press practices, we are promised the scrapping of the Human Rights Act by a Prime Minister who has washed his hands of a promise to abide by Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and shrugged off the newspaper industry’s resurrection of the Press Complaints Commission under a different guise.
The original purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted in the aftermath of war under the eye of a British judge and former Conservative Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, was to defend all Europeans from totalitarianism. It took 50 years to be incorporated into British law. Now, when the press and politicians, like the bankers before them, have been caught mired in sleaze, red-faced and red-handed, it is to be discarded. That suggests a contempt for the public among political leaders and press barons which should be returned in spades.
It is time we demanded more transparency of the the rich and powerful. Like politicians, each publication should declare on their websites ALL their business interests, and the shareholdings and directorships of the proprietors and senior editors. We deserve to know what might be motivating their news agendas and how they make their money. Each paper should be open about its editorial policies and ethical codes, and there should be clear, and easily accessible means of challenging inaccuracies or unethical conduct.
The scandals and the shedding of jobs from the mainstream, along with access to the internet, have given rise to a new generation of more independent investigative and community journalists. They may not rival commercial publishers in terms of circulation or revenue, but they could in terms of integrity and in holding power elites to account. They should also lead the way with greater transparency about themselves.
It remains to be seen whether the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) will provide an effective counterpart to IPSO, but let us at least hope that once the long round of corruption trials are over, braver and more accountable forms of journalism will triumph.