Reports of the Death of the Free Press Are Greatly Exaggerated!
Over the last 24 hours or so the three main parties at Westminster reached agreement on a way to respond to the Leveson Report and introduce a new system of ensuring that the national print media does not abuse its massive power.
The context of course was the abject failure of the previous system of self-regulation which did little to support individuals who had been wronged by the papers and the appalling revelations of widespread criminality by members of newsrooms of some national newspapers. Before anyone cries that it was just a rogue reporter or two at the “News of the World” they should pause to consider the recent arrests of Mirror reporters, the past hounding of Lord Ashcroft by The Times, the abuse of innocent Christopher Jefferies and the fabrication of “Nazi” allegations against Max Moseley. I also have personal experience of disgraceful conduct by the Daily Telegraph towards a friend of mine some years ago. Whilst some people, like Lord Ashcroft and Max Moseley, may have the resources to defend themselves and pursue costly legal action, the vast majority of the public does not. To take any civil case to court is tough and beyond the scope of most ordinary citizens. That is why it is important to have an effective and independent body which can ensure fair play and redress.
All too often elements of the print media have been content to smear and abuse innocent people, or to fabricate stories which they cannot otherwise justify. The resources behind most national newspapers are immense and they have counted on the fact that taking a defamation or libel case to court is expensive and time consuming and that therefore they will most likely get away with it. The Press Complaints Commission has been a largely toothless tiger and when apologies have occasionally been grudgingly printed they have been buried on page 26 in a two inch square story, when the original story was high profile and in a very visible location in the paper.
Of course there are stories which the newspapers have broken and which have been very much in the public interest. The Parliamentary expenses scandal is an obvious recent case. However, even then facts were often confused and misrepresented. For example most people remember “duck islands” and “moats” and yet both of these were claims which were never paid out because they were rejected by the Parliamentary expenses authorities at a time when the rules were opaque and often misunderstood. What should be remembered are the cases where MPs deliberately deceived the authorities, fabricated invoices, and lied. However, duck houses and moats were a useful motif for the press of an “out of touch” elite regardless of the facts.
The essence of a completely free press is an institution which is prepared to investigate stories, is not afraid to criticise those in authority, and is free from censorship and government interference in what it prints. These broad elements exist now and will exist under the proposed new regime. The difference is that when the press gets it wrong or deliberately misrepresents the truth individuals will have a much better chance to have things put right by the new independent regulator. This might also help to ensure that newsrooms stick to facts and do not allow corrupt and criminal behaviour to become a normal way of doing business.
The idea of a new system of regulation established by Royal Charter (as used to establish the BBC) is something which David Cameron proposed from the start. It was initially derided by Labour who wanted a statutory basis to a tough new system of regulation. This was fiercely opposed by the press who feared a structure which would seriously restrict their freedom to print stories inconvenient to politicians.
David Cameron stuck to his guns and eventually both Labour and the Lib Dems accepted the concept of a Royal Charter without “statutory underpinning”. The only concession was a non-specific clause preventing a simple majority in Parliament from tampering with the terms of Royal Charters. In future, changes to Royal Charters will require a two-thirds majority in both Houses. This was a sensible compromise in the circumstances and allows a new system of self-regulation to be established with all party consent.
The new body, when it is created, will have the power to impose major fines (capped at £1m) on newspapers which unfairly malign individuals and insist that they print an apology of equal prominence to the original offending article. It is not surprising that having had things their own way for so long, some newspapers are protesting! No one will censor what the papers print; they are free to investigate and print stories provided that they are justified in fact and in the public interest. Only if they revert to fabrications, smears, and other criminal behaviours will they incur punishment. Those papers which do not wish to sign up to the new system will be free to opt out but they will face possible unlimited exemplary damages if they are found to be in breach of the law.
The reaction to the political agreement from some quarters has been nothing short of hysterical. Some newspapers have thrown their toys in all directions, claiming the end of three hundred years of press freedom, while some people on Twitter have been claiming that this is the start of press censorship and the death of the free press; none of which are remotely true! In fact press and media freedom have long been qualified.
There is a system by which the Government can categorise some information as sensitive to national security (DA Notices) and by agreement newspapers will not print it. There are also the various Official Secrets Acts which can be used to prevent publication, with stringent penalties for their breach. There are Labour’s Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 which make it an offence to publish any information which could “glorify terrorism”. During the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland Ministers regularly intervened to prevent publication or broadcast of documentaries or stories unhelpful to the Government and national security. During WW1 and WW2 the Ministry of Information censored news and information that could be deemed to be helpful to the enemy.
To suggest that this agreement is somehow “crossing a Rubicon”, “the end of our free press”, or Government “censorship” is laughable nonsense, unworthy of people who claim to be democrats. The truth is that a system which can properly hold the national print press to account will enhance the freedom of most citizens to enjoy life, knowing that if they are defamed, libelled or lied about they have a course of redress and compensation which will be accessible to them and have real potency. Perhaps also newspaper reporters and editors will refrain from hacking, smearing, and fabricating stories for fear that they will face very real and very expensive consequences.
It is a good day for the ordinary citizen!