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In the press reform debate, who speaks for freedom? – Brian Cathcart

The Daily Telegraph is worried about freedom. In an editorial about the Leveson inquiry, which is due to report in the next few weeks (probably November, according to rumour), the paper warns: ‘There is a real danger that, because some newspapers allegedly behaved in a criminal manner, efforts will be made to reduce the whole press to an emasculated cipher of high-minded opinion.’

We are likely to hear a lot more of this, indeed it is likely that as publication draws nearer much of the national press will try to paint Lord Justice Leveson as a censor who wants to reduce press freedom in Britain to levels seen in Zimbabwe or North Korea. A similar argument was used in all of the previous debates accompanying all of the previous press inquiries over the past 65 years (and it was deployed with extraordinary vehemence in Australia only last year, in the press response to the latest media regulation proposals there).

By the time the report appears we can expect the press noise to be reaching a crescendo, in the hope that the rest of us cannot hear each other at all. One headline in Australia proclaimed ‘THE DEATH OF TRUTH’, and our papers are hardly likely to be more restrained.

So is there a danger to press freedom, or to freedom of expression? No, and here are some reasons why not.

First, there is no evidence that anyone of any substance in this country wants press censorship or anything remotely like it. No case for any form of political or government influence over the press was ever made to the Leveson inquiry, nor is any such notion part of the inquiry remit.

On the contrary, the inquiry’s terms of reference oblige it to make recommendations which support freedom of the press. The judge also issued repeated assurances that he would do nothing to inhibit free expression. And all of the leading politicians who gave evidence, including all three main party leaders, swore they were opposed to censorship or political interference in the media.

Second, the press argument depends upon a sleight of hand. Editors and proprietors have argued relentlessly that the only alternative to self-regulation of the press (as practised so unsuccessfully by the Press Complaints Commission) is ‘statutory regulation‘, and that ‘statutory regulation‘ is by definition regulation by politicians. You’ll find this same implication in the Daily Telegraph editorial. It is untrue.

It is perfectly possible to have an effective regulator that is independent of both the press and government, and it is perfectly possible to give that regulator teeth through legislation without placing ourselves on a slippery slope to Zimbabwe. A law could set up a regulator and give it powers while clearly establishing its independence from politicians (much as judges manage to be independent from politicians). Ed Miliband has proposed that the same law might also include clauses explicitly protecting press freedom.

We call this – rather awkwardly – independent regulation with statutory underpinning, or with a statutory backstop. It is similar in in some ways to the current regulation of BBC journalism and to the journalism regulation carried out by Ofcom. Since the BBC consistently produces Britain’s most trusted journalism, and since our governments invariably hate the BBC for its independence of spirit, we can take it that regulation of this kind does not by nature create politically compliant or unadventurous journalism.

Third, when it comes to their own business our national newspapers have a very bad record of defending free expression. Whether by conspiracy or out of some defensive reflex, they stubbornly refused to give their readers an honest account of the hacking scandal as it unfolded over five years from 2006. So far as they could they ignored it or buried it, the most vivid example being the refusal by four papers, on the morning after it was revealed that Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been hacked, even to mention the story on their front pages.

Since then, in the debates surrounding the Leveson inquiry most national papers have given little or no account of arguments they did not like, even though opinion polls show consistently that most of the public favours tougher regulation of the press and an end to self-regulation. In other words, papers are concealing from their readers an opinion that most people share, which hardly reflects a commitment to free expression. (You can read a powerful lecture on free expression and the press by Baroness Onora O’Neill here.)

And we can watch, when the Leveson report is published, how it it is covered in the papers. Will they give their readers an accurate and fair account of the findings and recommendations (as the PCC code suggests they should)? Will they be big enough, and responsible enough, to pass on a decent summary of Leveson’s criticisms of press culture? Will they report views of the report that differ from their own? It will be an interesting test.

Fourth, just as the press advocates of the status quo hardly qualify as champions of free speech, the advocates of independent press regulation cannot be classed as enemies of freedom or of journalism. Hacked Off is a supporter of the Libel Reform Campaign and it also presses for other legal changes that would make investigative journalism easier, not more difficult. Among our allies is the National Union of Journalists. Leading advocates of civil liberties in parliament and the legal profession support us. And as I say, so does most of the public.

We want press freedom. But we also want a press that is accountable, so that editors and reporters think more carefully about what they do, and are less likely to get things wrong and cause grave harm to innocent people. If we don’t have change, the long catalogue of victims of press abuse that is headed by people like the Dowlers, the Hillsborough families and the McCanns will simply continue to grow – indeed it may grow faster as papers revel in their untouchability. Journalists are supposed to expose injustice, not cause it.

Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off website and is reproduced with permission and thanks

Photo from Diego3336 on Flickr

1 Comment

  1. John J. Walsh

    “… as papers revel in their untouchability” – a very trenchant phrase applicable to the impact here in the States on our mechanism to protect reputations, the civil action for libel, of New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny, as well as statutory and common law privileges and defenses, such as shield laws, anti-SLAPP laws etc; very few libel actions can successfully run the gauntlet created by such law to limit press liabilities. “Untouchability” is the rule here,

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