A fair press is compatible with a free press
By Peter Tatchell
MSN News – 29 November 2012
The Leveson report on the press is a positive, long overdue first step towards ending unethical cowboy journalism and providing redress to victims of media intrusion and misrepresentation.
Self-regulation isn’t working, as Lord Justice Leveson conceded. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is inadequate.
Having come to this conclusion, it is somewhat surprising that he recommends that the newspaper industry should be required to create a new “self-regulatory” body to replace the PCC. He wants this body to have a code of practice and be backed up with the power of legal sanctions against rogue editors and reporters.
It would be set up by the press but be independent of the press, government and commercial bodies, and not include any serving editors, government ministers or MPs. Newspapers that refuse to join the new body could face direct regulation by the media watchdog Ofcom.
While these proposals are welcome, like many people, I felt uneasy with the suggestion that failed self-regulation might continue in a new form.
What Leveson has proposed would certainly be an improvement on the status quo, providing the new regulatory body has sufficient resources to do investigations and deliver prompt judgements.
Some people fear that a code of conduct and legal sanctions will inhibit press freedom.
This view was echoed by Prime Minister, David Cameron. He praised Leveson but did not promise to implement his recommendations. On the contrary, Cameron expressed serious misgivings about any new legislation to regulate the press; arguing that it could intrude on a free press.
This is a legitimate concern but it is misplaced in this case. If doctors and solicitors can have a code of conduct, why not journalists?
Speaking as a part-time journalist, and a member of the National Union of Journalists, I don’t see any reason why my colleagues should fear being held to ethical standards. We all, I hope, want ethical journalism.
Light-touch rules to ensure responsible, fair reporting will not inhibit freedom of the press. Providing there is a strong and clear public interest defence clause, they won’t constrain investigative journalism and the press exposure of wrong doing by people in high places.
Leveson also proposed a low-cost arbitration system, to enable people who’ve been victims of the press to seek redress without having to go through the courts. Currently only the rich can afford to bring libel cases to defend their reputations against baseless damaging allegations. In place of legal aid for libel, which would primarily enrich lawyers, this arbitration idea seems a sensible and workable alternative.
What constitutes redress for press victims has not been sufficiently spelled out by Leveson. I’d like to see a statutory right of reply for people who’ve been subjected to false media allegations. If the proposed arbitration body finds against them, newspapers should be required by law to publish an apology and correction of factual errors, on the same page with the same prominence, within seven days.
I know a thing or two about this issue; having been a victim of media intrusion and fabrications when I stood as a Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by-election in 1983. Some journalists door-stepped me day and night, rifled through my rubbish bins and spied on me in my own flat using telephoto lenses. They published articles that were blatant fiction and doctored photos to make it look like I was wearing make-up. These mostly tabloid shenanigans may have contributed to my dramatic loss of what was previously a safe Labour seat.
From this experience, I have concluded that for a democracy to function properly, the press must be factual and fair, as well as free. Without this guarantee of fairness and factuality, informed democratic debate is impossible. In addition, the public should be able to secure redress against false reporting and have protection against invasions of privacy, where there is no public interest justification, such as exposing criminality or hypocrisy.
Such safeguards do not restrict press freedom. There is no contradiction between a fair press and a free press.
Note: An edited version of this article was published by MSN on 29 November 2012.