Welcome back investigative journalism – now toughen up sanctions on wrong-doers

10 July 2009 – 2009 may be the year that investigative journalism makes a comeback – as editors realise that the public has a real appetite for the juicy revelations provided by the Daily Telegraph on MPs’ expenses and The Guardian on underhand methods at the News of the World and elsewhere.

None of it is really news, of course. We have long known that politicians have feet of clay and a deep distrust of their constituents finding out how they make and spend their money. The devil, as ever, is in the detail.

MediaWise has delivered dossier after dossier of information to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and its predecessors, about the underhand methods of newspapers in gathering information about ordinary members of the public let alone public figures. Before the era of mobile phones and the internet, journalists and private investigators were gaining improper access to telephone records, criminal records, bank accounts and vehicle licences, and going through dustbins. Inevitably money would change hands in some of these transactions, so it should have come as no surprise when the Information Commissioner revealed in 2006 that thousands of illicit items of information had been dredged up for journalists by one investigation agency alone.

But what is to be done about it? In the past no-one has really been prepared to take tough action against an errant press because they know where too many of the skeletons are buried. Politicians court editors and proprietors when elections are in the offing, rattle sabres when the public take umbrage at tabloid excesses but quickly sheath them when one of their colleagues is caught with his pants down.

Westminster may be up for some payback right now, but a bunch of bitter MPs, who might prefer to blame their recent fall from grace on the media rather than their own mendacity, are not the best placed to clear up the Augean stables. And besides, of late the arguments for lightening regulation altogether as communications technologies merge have been finding favour in the corridors of power.

No sensible person would want the police to police the press, and the courts should be reserved as a last resort for criminal behaviour.

The press, which rightly rails against all others who look after their own through systems of self-regulation, always insists that it must keep its own house in order. For the umpteenth time the Press Complaints Commission has been outwitted by those it is supposed to hold to account.

Root and branch reform is in order if public confidence is to be restored. Allow a rotating seat for one editor on the PCC, and kick the rest off; bring in more members of the public and at least one representative of journalists organisations so that the working stiffs, currently denied the right to a conscience clause, can help unpick the editorial judgements of their bosses. More importantly impose graduated fines for breaches of the Editors’ Code and award compensation commensurate with the time and trouble caused to complainants about inaccurate, unwarranted or intrusive coverage. Ignore the hypocritical howls of editors that this will bring lawyers into the complaints system – newspapers employ their own lawyers to defend their corner already.

Oh, and if they really want to restore public confidence and increase sales, editors could try ditching prurient and petty stories in favour of more investigative journalism.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 153)

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