The day the circus came to town

Any regular readers of this blog, and I guess there must be a couple of you, may have noticed that I have cleverly managed to avoid writing about the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press. This is not so much because of a lack of interest on my part, although at times the saturation coverage was tedious in the extreme, but because I genuinely had no idea what I thought about it all.

As the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report looms ever closer, speculation about its contents threatens to overwhelm anything and everything that is actually already happening.  This is hardly surprising; the press loves writing about itself even more than it loves writing about corrupt politicians or love-rat celebs.  Nonetheless, it has convinced me that even as a (relatively) normal person I should get off my fence.

It starts and ends with freedom of the press.  This has to be sacrosanct.  But freedom of the press can’t mean freedom to do whatever it wants without fear of sanction, which is how we got into this mess.

Almost anyone who has expressed a view on the Leveson inquiry (and there are many) agrees the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is a toothless regulator in the pocket of the very industry it was supposed to regulate that has more than had its last chance.  Most, if not all, want to see an independent and effective system that balances freedom of the press with the rights of individuals.  Where they disagree, often vehemently, is how this can be done.

In a direct parallel with the legal profession, whose complaints handling before 2010 was so dire it almost defied belief, it was as much the PCC’s failure to deal with complaints as it was the criminal behaviour of a few journalists that has led to calls for statutory regulation of the press.  It is, if you like, their own fault.

This is one reason why part of the answer has to be some form of statutory regulation. From my perspective, I haven’t spent years arguing for independent regulation of the legal profession, guaranteed by statute, only to see the relevance of another vital pillar of democracy wither away because of a lack of trust caused by vested interests.  The public agrees, with 79% wanting an independent press regulator established by law.

The days of regulation controlling output are long gone; now it’s all about focusing on outcomes, setting standards and encouraging compliance.  There is not necessarily anything wrong with self-regulation, as long as there are clear boundaries between professional interests and regulatory functions, although it would be fair to say results are mixed, with the PCC and the old system of legal regulation failing spectacularly to enforce standards or protect consumers.

For those suggesting statutory regulation is the same as state control, it isn’t, and rather than repeat the reasons why, I suggest you read this by David Allen Green.  No one (no one reasonable at any rate) is proposing state control of the press and no one thinks freedom of the press is merely a liberal fetish, an unaffordable luxury in dangerous times (this map shows the link between press freedom and democracy is more than just a coincidence).

As Thomas Jefferson, the father of democracy so eloquently put it: ‘no government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no-one ever will’.  It is true there is very little the government and I agree on, a fact that I am sure it finds tremendously troubling, but I have sufficient faith that they take Jefferson’s maxim as seriously as I do.  

Regulation, however draconian, unless we are talking North Korea or Stalinist Russia, does not stop people doing stupid things, just as banning something doesn’t stop it happening. It is quite hard to work out quite how anyone could think it was a good idea to hack a murdered schoolgirl’s phone, and it is already illegal, but people did it.

It is also illegal to report on crimes in such a way as to suggest someone is guilty before they have even been charged, but that hasn’t stopped Chris Jefferies or Lord McAlpine suffering at the hands of shoddy journalism.

However, if regulation can’t stop people being rubbish at their jobs or indulging in criminal activity, it can ensure they face sanctions for misbehaving and compensate individuals for any harm they cause.  As far as consumers are concerned, it is probably independent and effective redress that has the most value.

Having said all of this, and I know it’s a cliché, but the press wouldn’t print all this horrible stuff if we, the public, didn’t buy it.  It would be unfair to suggest that readers of the News of the World, for example, were in any way complicit in phone hacking by buying those papers.  But it is our salacious appetite for gossip about the private lives of the rich and famous (and the not so famous) that has kept this particular industry going. 

And I am pretty sure it is this unhealthy addiction to sleaze, rather than any noble adherence to the ‘public interest’, that gripped many as the Leveson hearings revealed in inglorious detail the true nature of the intimate and insidious relationships between politicians, the police and senior newspaper executives.

What we need, and what I hope Leveson will come up with, is a clear definition of the public interest.  Sordid details about a politician’s sex-life may well be fair game if s/he preaches about family values, but much less so if they leave that issue well alone.  This has to go hand in hand with libel reform to ensure anyone, not just the wealthy, can protect their reputation.  The government is playing with this idea, but probably not vigorously enough.

But I doubt the Leveson report will recommend anything much about either since they weren’t directly part of the remit.  I also can’t imagine he will propose anything to tackle the elitist cabal sitting astride this chaos: these exclusive clubs will continue whatever he comes up with because that’s what governing elites do. 

This is clearly important stuff with vital principles at stake, whichever side of the fence you stand, or even if you are still sitting on it.  What I am not so sure about is whether we needed a £6 million, 18-month ‘media circus’ to look at it.  Something will have to change, if only to prove it wasn’t all a waste of time.

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