7 November 2012 – It was inevitable that the bullyboys of the newspaper industry would campaign under a spurious banner of press freedom against any attempt by Lord Justice Leveson or politicians to clip their wings.
It is a pity that the Press Gazette chose to give succour to their ‘case’ with an equally spurious poll – no more accurate or scientific than those run by The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail to feed prejudice and discrimination. Once it became clear the poll was a nonsense, voting was stopped – at 137 (including duplicates). Yet this miniscule ‘finger in the wind’ exercise (the NUJ claim a membership of over 30,000) has generated a storm. It set the likes of Neil ‘Wolf Man’ Wallis howling that the NUJ should ballot its members on a policy confirmed at its recent Delegate Meeting.
But what is that policy and is the NUJ, or anyone else, really calling for statutory regulation? The NUJ, like most of the other critics of the failed Press Complaints Commission (PCC), want an independent complaints and redress system which will not set standards but seek to uphold those declared by the industry itself. The guarantee of both the independence and the effectiveness of the new system would be that it has been set up – like Ofcom – under statute. It would be at long arm’s length from both elected politicians and unelected newspaper editors and proprietors.
The latter have had it all their own way for generations, neatly sidestepping every attempt to introduce some form of accountability since the 1947 Royal Commission.
In a recent scientific (www.mediaact.eu) survey of UK journalists the vast majority saw their conscience as a better guarantee of ethical behaviour than the PCC but no employer has yet been willing to add a ‘conscience clause’ to contracts of employment. The NUJ believes that would be better security than relying on self regulation run by editors and proprietors. (Working journalists are specifically excluded from serving on the PCC.)
Editors like Wallis (formerly of the Sun, News of the World and the People) and others who served with him on the PCC, have consistently rejected calls from NUJ members for recognition of the union’s Code of Conduct. Yet it was first devised back in 1936 as an antidote to illiberal calls for journalists to be registered and struck off for misbehaviour.
So where are these calls for state control coming from? Having spent 20 years assisting thousands of members of the public with their complaints about the print and broadcast media, I know that very, very few would seek to constrain the freedom of the press. Despite their own experiences the vast majority merely want journalists to do their job properly – which is all the media reformers want. The MediaWise view is the press freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public, not a licence for proprietors to do what they will in pursuit of profit.
Their aim is to intimidate anyone who dares to challenge them. As usual the agenda setters set up paper windmills to tilt at, in a sustained attempt to draw the public gaze from the real battleground.
Writing in the Press Gazette (26 Oct 2012) Tim Luckhurst accused ‘supporters of state regulation’ of castigating their opponents as ‘first amendment fundamentalists. They mean that we support the US Constitution’s categorical guarantee that government may make no law abridging the freedom of the press.’
I am not sure I have heard that particular criticism, but then none of the people he has in his firing line are proposing ‘state regulation’. We agree with him that ‘Statutory regulation of British newspapers would create a constitutional absurdity: parliamentary scrutiny of a body the electorate depends upon to scrutinise parliament.’
Next came the Daily Telegraph. ‘The threat to our free press is grave and foolish’, it thundered on 28 Sept 2012. ‘Once a regulatory measure … is on the Statute Book, MPs will seek to define the public interest in law, and governments will be tempted to use the legislation to choke off dissent. …it is no coincidence that countries with the highest levels of corruption have the most tightly regulated media. Britain can boast one of the least venal political systems in the world.’
That was rich coming from the paper that exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal (allegedly by buying a stolen CD, and illegal act for which they would undoubtably be acquitted in the UK courts by using the ‘public interest’ defence).
The next day the Daily Mail treated us to the fantasy world of Richard Littlejohn (‘A journalist jailed for exposing tax cheats – don’t kid yourself it couldn’t happen here’). ‘A head of steam is building up behind demands for statutory regulation of free speech,’ he ranted. ‘That would be the start of a descent into oppression and censorship.’
Like so much of what he writes, it was rubbish, but his line was taken up by Trevor Kavanagh in a scaremongering column for The Sun (‘Regulating Press would bring Greek tragedy to Britain’, 31 Oct 2012): ‘The first casualty will be the right of voters to know what their masters are up to.’
Then came Dominic Sandbrook’s apocalyptic vision in the Mail (‘The new dark age’, 2 Nov 2012). The Leveson Inquiry, he claimed, was among the ‘disturbing signs of a backlash against democracy, free speech and the will of the people — a counter-revolution that could sweep away many of the liberties we take for granted.’
He appeared to have forgotten that the inquiry was launched after public revulsion at distasteful and illegal behaviour by the country’s biggest selling newspaper. As MediaWise pointed out in evidence to the inquiry, such unethical and illegal behaviour has been endemic for at least as long as the PCC existed.
And finally Murdoch’s Sun went right over the top, taking its cue from the Press Gazette. In an editorial headed ‘No censors’ (6 Nov 2012) it claimed that NUJ General Secretary ‘Michelle Stanistreet wants to surrender centuries of hard-won Press freedom for Government control of the Press. We would end up like Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran, with State stooges and politicians deciding what can or can’t be printed in your Sun.’
This is arrant nonsense of course, but it is difficult to extract the poison poured into 3 million ears. It’s a good example of why we cannot trust the industry to police itself.
On behalf of those who have fallen foul of bad journalism, MediaWise has long argued for a more open and accountable system of self regulation, less closely tied to publishers and editors.
In November 1996 a Guardian leader column challenged self-regulation thus: ‘At the moment the people see only a body which claims unique privileges to itself without any of the concomitant responsibilities…prepared to change…but only when it suits them. They see a body scornful of whether or not its proceedings command public confidence. It cannot go on like this.’
It was talking about Parliament, and went on to quote Lord Nolan: ‘the public needs to see that breaches of rules are investigated as fairly, and dealt with as firmly by Parliament, as would be the case with others through the legal process’.
Change ‘Parliament’ to ‘the Press’ and you have, in a nutshell, the case for a more independent and effective system of press regulation. That is all we all want.
Director, The MediaWise Trust
Vice Chair, NUJ Ethics Council