I always wanted to be a journalist. I used to write up the news from our village on sheets of paper that my dad brought home from work. I thought that journalism was like the blues: all you need is a typewriter and the truth.
In practice, of course, journalism isn’t always like that. I got my first job in journalism, back in 2001, on the books desk at the Observer, interviewing authors and writing diary stories about literary feuds. I loved it, but it was hardly Watergate.
However, this was just after 9/11 and the Observer played an important role in the public and political debate at that time, as a trusted guide to complex issues. That role is just as important whether you’re talking about international relations or what goes on at the village hall; whether a journalist works on a battered old typewriter or an iPhone; whether the news is gathered by professional journalists, or members of the public, curated by professionals; and whether it’s done for profit or out of love. The same underlying principles apply: journalism is our trusted guide to what’s going on around us, what it means and why it matters.
I saw this very clearly in my work at English PEN, where I campaigned on behalf of journalists around the world who have been imprisoned or persecuted because of their work. I’ve seen what happens when journalism is controlled by governments.
I’ve also seen what happens when the press is controlled by a small cabal of men who have sewn up the regulator. This leads to poor standards and declining trust in journalism. We all believe in press freedom and high standards of journalism. How can we get the best of both worlds?
That was the challenge that faced Leveson, who found himself between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, there’s self-regulation, which is inherently compromised. How can a regulator stand up to the newspaper owners who fund and control it? On the other hand, there’s state regulation, which has the opposite problem. How can newspapers stand up to politicians who regulate them?
During the Inquiry, newspaper owners and editors queued up to tell us that self-regulation had failed and that they were open to new ideas. Paul Dacre proposed an ombudsman. He also said that the industry would need help from Parliament to compel newspaper owners to join a more robust regulator than the PCC. Lord Hunt, Chair of the PCC, also argued that statutory underpinning might be necessary to give the regulator authority.
In that context, I thought that Leveson’s solution was remarkably intelligent, and remarkably moderate – in fact, more moderate than Dacre’s recommendation of an ombudsman. He argued that it’s necessary and possible to avoid both the rock and the hard place. His framework of self-regulation that’s accountable to an independent body – the new Recognition Panel – is an ingenious way of giving the regulator some authority without giving politicians any control over it.
I expected the industry to embrace this solution wholeheartedly. For about a week, it looked like they would. Then James Harding was sacked from The Times and the mood changed. The debate rapidly veered from the consensus that had characterised Leveson to something more antagonistic and polarised.
The Royal Charter emerged as an attempt by the Government to appease the press, but papers like the Sun, the Mail and the Telegraph had no compunction about publishing profoundly inaccurate leaders about this. The Mail said it meant that politicians would have the final say on what’s printed. The Telegraph said it would stop responsible newspapers from publishing what they wish. The Sun said it would allow the Privy Council to regulate the press.
None of these statements were true. The Charter does not constrain press freedom: journalists are entirely free to write about politicians; there is no prior restraint; there is no licensing; and there is no state-appointed regulator.
Nonetheless, advocates of the Leveson recommendations were attacked in the press and the same papers that were publishing such inaccurate, distorted information went about the task of setting up a ‘new’ regulator that is, in most respects, the PCC with lipstick.
So I began to talk to people about how we could change things. How could we protect journalism in its role of trusted guide? It became clear that the only way to have any impact on the debate was actually to set up a regulator.
And the more I thought about that, the more exciting the idea became. Because a decent regulator, which accepts Leveson’s proposals for independence, can actually do something important for journalism. It can help to assert journalists’ role as trusted guides. It can give them ethical and legal guidance on the issues that challenge us. It can distinguish journalism from all the other online material. And it can help to build trust in journalism – trust which has commercial value. Trusted journalists get better stories. They get stories from sources who don’t want to go to unethical, unprofessional newspapers. Trusted journalists are believed by their readers, which gives them real authority to hold the powerful to account.
We’ve launched IMPRESS for those journalists who value accuracy and independence. Right now, IMPRESS is small and underfunded. But there’s a lot of support for this idea and I’m confident that we can pull in the funds to set up a Charter-compliant regulator in the course of this year. We want IMPRESS to be affordable to all news publishers, however small, so we’re hoping to offer free or at least very low cost membership. We’ll offer arbitration for libel claims, but we’ll also sift out trivial and vexatious claims so that journalists don’t have to waste their time dealing with trivial and vexatious claims. We’ll engage the public in our work, so that we can host an ongoing debate about the values of journalism, and look for common solutions at times when there’s a sensitive or complex issue in the news.
In contrast, IPSO has been set up by newspaper owners to protect their interests. IPSO has signed up 90% of the British press. That sounds impressive until you realise it only means about nine men sitting together in a room in London. It’s a short-term solution that’s destined to fail. Either it will be soft on the publishers and the public will walk away, or it will be hard on the publishers, and they will walk away. Failure is in its DNA.
IMPRESS gives us an alternative. We don’t have the support of those nine men who own 90% of the press. Instead, we’re talking to the thousands of people who run the remaining 10%, from national titles through to locals and hyperlocals. We think that you do an important job, and we’d like to find a solution that helps you.
Because, in the end, journalism depends on a typewriter, the truth, and a decent regulator.
Jonathan Heawood is Founding Director of The IMPRESS Project
Read more at www.impressproject.org
Follow The IMPRESS Project on Twitter: @impressproject
This post originally appeared on the NUJ website and is reproduced with permission and thanks.