British journalists need to take responsibility for press reform

With respect to proposals over to reform the British press in the wake of ever widening allegations of phone hacking, computer hacking and utterly unethical behaviour, we’re seeing Greener’s Law in operation:

Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.

The British press have been spilling a lot of ink and pushing a lot of pixels in an attempt to avoid any change to the status quo. If the press was covering any other industry fighting so vociferously against a new regulatory regime, journalists and columnists would accuse them of special pleading and double standards. In a brilliant piece piercing some of the puffery of the press, Alex Andreou, writing for the New Statesman, put it this way:

The lack of self-reflection is truly staggering. The Leveson process is not something which was done to us. Nobody woke up one morning and thought “I know what I’ll do today – curtail the freedom of the press.” This is something entirely caused by the industry being, on the whole, out of control; engaging in occasionally illegal and often unethical practices. Take responsibility.

The response from journalists? Lord Justice Leveson put it best:

Not only are the press powerful lobbyists in their own interests, but they wield a powerful megaphone with considerable influence.

The press in the UK doesn’t want any interference by the government in what they do, which I support up to a point, but the press has talking a lot of nonsense about the proposals for reform and self-regulation for months.

With all of the spin in the press, it’s important to review what Leveson actually proposed. To quote a BBC explainer, Leveson recommended:

• Newspapers should continue to be self-regulated – and the government should have no power over what they publish
• There had to be a new press standards body created by the industry, with a new code of conduct
• That body should be backed by legislation, which would create a means to ensure the regulation was independent and effective
• The arrangement would provide the public with confidence that their complaints would be seriously dealt with – and ensure the press are protected from interference

Not to gloss over some of the finer points of the just announced proposals, but the main difference now appears to be whether the new self-regulatory body will be backed by regulation or a Royal Charter. I would like to know what happened to Leveson’s recommendation that in addition to the new self-regulation body, a new law “should also place an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press”. That would be a great addition to the proposals.

What has been troubling to me is that instead of reaffirming their commitment to professionalism, fair play and living within the law, too much of British journalistic commentary about the proposed reforms has been over the top, invoking the name of Stalin, Mussolini and other dark dictators. Anti-hacking campaigners are accused of bullying politicians simply by meeting them. Really? As if press barons never met with politicians? Indeed, as the FT recently said, all of the closed door meetings between powerful editors and politicians gave the impression that the press had something to hide.

A democracy cannot have an institution, governmental or otherwise, that operates with no accountability. Commercial press barons would say that their audiences hold to them account with the power of the pound, but commercial success is not equivalent to or a substitute for accountability.

The scope of this press corruption scandal continues to grow with hundreds of more revelations about not only Rupert Murdoch’s papers but also now at Trinity Mirror. At some point, voices within the press need to stop playing hardball defence and start getting to grips with how to respond affirmatively. I’m a journalist who has worked for the BBC and then the Guardian for most of my career, and I have been waiting for British journalists to stand up and categorically condemn the behaviour and commit to renewed professionalism. Certainly, some have, but mostly, I just saw reflexive grandstanding about the essential democratic role of the press. True, freedom of the press is essential to democracy, and the role that we play in supporting free societies it is one of the reasons why I’m proud to be a journalist.

However, we cannot turn a blind eye to how corrupt and corrupting certain parts of the British press became. Operation Motorman showed how widespread the problem was. However, the best way to put distance between the vast majority of journalists and these criminals within our midst is to stand up for our professional standards and ethics. The press cannot hold power to account if its own power is unaccountable. We cannot protect democracy while allowing a criminal class to grow within our midst. Our efforts at self-regulation cannot be taken seriously if the serial abuse is so obvious to everyone outside of our professional tribe, yet denied by so many people within it.

It was cheering this week to see Charles Blackhurst of The Independent, Lionel Barber of the Financial Times and Alan Rushbridger of The Guardian join together and call for a sensible compromise on press reform and regulation. According to Roy Greenslade in The Guardian:

All three editorials suggest that statutory underpinning will not inhibit press freedom. It doesn’t amount to statutory control of the press, says the Guardian. It need not impinge on press freedom, says the FT.

This is long overdue, but it should not just be left to editors to take this stand. If we really want to defend the freedom of the press that we enjoy in the UK, we have to stand up against the almost comically criminal hacks and stand up for professionalism, ethics and standards. The wretched excesses of parts of the press have been tolerated for too long, but now, a total lack of ethics and criminality by a not insignificant number of hacks is threatening freedom of all journalists. It’s not a joke anymore. It is threatening the precious freedoms we enjoy.

Leveson: Should there limits to freedom of the press?

I am a journalist who believes deeply in the mission of journalism. Democracies need strong, independent news organisations to help maintain free societies, but as I think about whether Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, I think of what American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote:

Without a free press there can be no free society. That is axiomatic. However, freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society. The scope and nature of the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of the press are to be viewed and applied in that light.

Leveson: Freedom of expression and the press are different rights

Professor Chris Frost, the Head of Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, has testified before the Leveson inquiry “in in his role as Chairman of the National Union of Journalists Ethics Council, alongside NUJ General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet”, and I think he raised a point that is important not only with respect to the press corruption scandal in Britain but also in a lot of other debates that we’re currently having in terms of rights and responsibilities in democratic societies. I’ve heard a number of times recently people confuse freedom of the press with freedom of speech or of expression. These are different rights. 

Frost drew a distinction, and I think an important one, between freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Just as important in terms of making distinctions between these freedoms, he also speaks about limits with respect to these freedoms. 

Clearly other people have other freedoms which may come into conflict.  The obvious ones are reputation, privacy, fair trial and so on, all as mentioned in the Human Rights Act, and clearly journalists need to balance their – and indeed everybody needs to – balance their right to freedom of expression against those other rights.

This becomes particularly important for the media, which is in a particular position of power, so that whereas the kind of freedom of expression you and I enjoy when talking to other people can have a little more licence, when it’s driven by a media which is talking potentially to millions, there needs to be much more concern about the rights of others, such as privacy and so on.

The difference between the rights of the individual to expression and the rights of journalists as members of the press and media are different. The individual right of expression versus the institutional right of freedom of the press have a different relationship to the democratic process. I’ve made the point before that the press, the Fourth Estate, is an institution with power. It needs this power to hold other institutions and other holders of power to account. However, power corrupts, and in the case of the British tabloids, in particular, they not only became corrupt but also had a corrupting influence on public officials. When other institutions, whether they are in government or in the private sphere, we call for reform.

Recent attacks on the process of the Leveson inquiry by powerful interests of the press worry me. The British press is in need of reform, not to protect the powerful from being held to account but to protect ordinary British citizens whose reputations have been smeared and whose right to privacy has been trampled by an unaccountable tabloid press. Leveson is about stamping out corruption in an important democratic institution, the press. It is not an attack on freedom of speech.