THE EDITOR’S CHAIR: Press should not be under state control
BEFORE you read on, let me make one thing clear. The following is not an editor whingeing on behalf of his industry.
But it is an editor worrying for the future freedoms of this country.
Lord Leveson will next month deliver his recommendations for future regulation of the Press.
A fear that I share with many journalists around the country is that Leveson will call for some form of statutory regulation.
To quote a regional daily newspaper editor from another part of the UK: “Statutory regulation is a short trip to state control. Once the government measures public interest rather than the press or the courts the self-interest of ministers and political parties can hold sway.”
The heinous behaviour of the News of the World, particularly the unforgivable hacking of murdered Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, meant an inquiry into the behaviour of some elements of the Press was inevitable.
The words ‘some elements’ are the important part of that sentence.
The News of the World – and, let’s be honest, illegal phone hacking and the like will have happened in other parts of Fleet Street as well – broke the law.
Its journalists hacked into mobile phones, more often than not as simple fishing expeditions, in a bid to find embarrassing material about celebrities rather than genuine investigations in the public interest.
These people paid the police and criminals to give them information, again an illegal act.
In almost 30 years as a journalist I can honestly say I have never broken the law to obtain a story.
I have never hacked a phone (hell, I can barely work out how to access my own voice messages) and I have never paid anyone for information.
To my knowledge, the same applies to every journalist who has ever worked for me or with me.
We’re not perfect. We make plenty of mistakes. We upset people from time to time.
But we do not act against the law or with malice aforethought.
Yet if Leveson recommends statutory regulation, the Argus and every other printed publication in the UK will be subject to that regulation.
It would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The misbehaviour of a tiny percentage of Britain’s thousands of newspapers and magazines would result in the mass punishment of all of them.
That cannot be right, nor can it be good for the freedoms we all enjoy in this country.
A Press that is able to investigate and expose is one of those freedoms and we should all cherish it.
Cash for questions, MPs’ expenses, Watergate, the Profumo affair – all of these scandals were exposed by journalists. Some were exposed using methods that were not necessarily legal.
I am not advocating law-breaking as a basis for good journalism, but who would have complained if, for instance, phone hacking had exposed Jimmy Savile long before his death?
There is no doubt the regulation of the Press has to be reformed.
The Press Complaints Commission will be replaced because it is holed beneath the water line. The perception that it is a toothless regulator is now so great that it cannot survive.
I think the PCC has been treated unfairly. It works very well with regional newspapers as an arbiter and negotiator behind the scenes to the satisfaction of all concerned with a complaint.
Throughout my career, I am proud to say I have not had a single complaint made to the PCC upheld against me or my newspapers.
If a complaint was upheld it would be a badge of shame for me and my journalists. Unfortunately, many national newspapers simply paid lip service to the PCC.
Complaints upheld against them seemed to be a badge of honour.
A new regulator must have powers to fine, or even to suspend publication of, newspapers that transgress.
But statutory regulation is not the way forward. New laws – created by politicians with an axe to grind – are not the way forward.
Laws are already in place to stop the kind of methods the News of the World employed to get its stories.
That they were allowed to continue for so long was not a failing of Press regulation, but of those whose job it is to enforce the law.