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.

Hacking: Members of the Fourth Estate are not exempt from the law

After the phone- and email-hacking and the illegal payments to police and other public officials scandal currently engulfing the British press the key question is, What needs to be done to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

Journalists are obviously resistant to statutory regulation, which they believe will undermine the watchdog role that the press is supposed to play with respect to the government and the police. The belief by journalists is that this isn’t an issue of regulation but rather of enforcing existing laws. In an interview with the Guardian, outgoing Associated Press president and chief executive Tom Curley sums up that point of view nicely:

The laws on hacking and payments are rather clear. We don’t need more laws there but somebody didn’t enforce what was already there. Why did they not enforce them? What was really going on and how does that get resolved?

That’s really key. Not only is there clear evidence of wrong-doing, there has been clear evidence of wrong-doing for years, almost a a decade. What perverted the course of justice to such an extent that the News International’s ‘rogue reporter’ defence stood up for so long?

As an American, I come at this from a distinctly American point of view, not just in terms of journalism but also in terms of a fundamentally American civic point of view. The entire basis of US constitutional governance is a system of checks and balances. The Founding Fathers believed that government power needed to be held in check, which is why they invested counter-balancing power in the courts, Congress and the office of the president. Despite an increase in the concentration of executive power beginning in the 1930s, you only have to see how Barack Obama is checked by a hostile Congress to see how checks and balances operate.

The press is often referred to as the Fourth Estate, another centre of power, another check against authority. However, it’s pretty clear that in the UK, power actually became so concentrated in the tabloid press that it effectively has gone unchecked. The police didn’t hold the tabloids to account, and politicians actually courted Rupert Murdoch’s king-making Sun.

Now as the investigations into illegal payments to public officials and police yield arrests for questioning, Sun Associate Editor Trevor Kavanagh thundered in defence of his paper and the British press today under the headline Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press freedom.

An effort by the police to finally do a proper investigation and hold people to account is a Soviet-style witch-hunt?

Read his article. It’s typically good Sun bombast, but it’s also typical of tabloid diversion: Change the subject, frame the argument so that something very unseemly seems righteous and pure. He says his journalists are blameless:

Their alleged crimes? To act as journalists have acted on all newspapers through the ages, unearthing stories that shape our lives, often obstructed by those who prefer to operate behind closed doors. These stories sometimes involve whistleblowers. Sometimes money changes hands. This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.

Chequebook journalism is a pretty common feature in securing tattle for the tabloid press. However, if you start to whip out the chequebook to pay a police officer or a public official, that’s something entirely different. It starts to establish a potentially corrupting relationship between officials and the press. Yes, it is done in extraordinary circumstances, such as obtaining the records for the explosive MPs expenses story. However, a nonchalance about money changing hands between journalists and public officials shines a spotlight on the problem; it doesn’t provide a defence for the practice or for those involved in it.

Occasionally journalists will engage in surreptitious recording if it is in the public interest. Occasionally, and in extraordinary circumstances when there is no other way to get a story, we will conceal our identity as journalists. However, we only bend or break our own professional rules if there is an overriding public interest in doing so. There is no public interest defence for breaking the Computer Misuse Act. There is no public interest defence for intercepting voicemail messages.

With sufficient justification and internal editorial oversight, normal guidelines can be set aside when there is an overwhelming public need to do so, but journalists cannot break the law without understanding that we will be held to account.

The journalists now being investigated are not being treated any differently than anyone else would be in an investigation, and if journalists are suspected of breaking the law, there is nothing special about our profession that allows police to treat us any differently than anyone else. Members of the Fourth Estate are not exempt from the laws of the other three. A press card, even the new one proposed by the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, is not a licence to break the law. The sooner that tabloid journalists accept that, the sooner we can move on from this dark chapter in the history of journalism.