A FREE PRESS DOES NOT EQUATE TO A FREE REIGN

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We need a free press but we need a free press with honesty and integrity, and not a press who can say or do what they want and claim public benefit

Having a free press in the UK does not mean that we have to give the press free reign. In order for the press to retain the good will of the public who buy the publications we need to ensure that the press are properly regulated and given a framework of rules to work within.

It is clear that the press need some form of regulation after the Leveson review chaired by Lord Justice Leveson the Privy Council rejected the proposals put forward by the press for a form of self- regulation backed up by a Royal Charter. Government sources indicated that the sub-committee of the Privy Council looking at the proposals believe that the press suggestions are “flawed”. The BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson believed that ministers “do look set to reject” the form of regulation put forward by newspapers.

No-one wants to hamstring the press and stop them from undertaking important investigative journalism like the investigations undertaken by The Telegraph into the expenses of MP’s, but for a newspaper to justify the hacking of a murdered schoolgirls phone as part of its work is reprehensible and must not be able to happen again, for newspapers to be fed lies by institutions such as the Government or the Police and for them to print them without any investigation as to the validity of the information is a disgraceful indictment of poor and lazy journalism.

It is only through the consent of the buying public that the press can operate properly and freely in the UK, and undertake work in the public interest. However journalists and proprietors must listen to the will of the public in what is in the public interest and not tell us what is in the public interest. All too often the press will investigate a celebrity or other public figure and their indiscretions and say they are doing so in the public interest and justify this by saying the newspapers are being bought and that it proves the public interest. However has the press ever thought to investigate its own actions and ask the public what it considers the public interest, do the public buy a newspaper based on its contact or is it more like buying out of habit?page1image19296 page1image19456

I’m sure many would consider investigating the outside interests of the Members of Parliament who represent us is in the public interest, particularly where they are suggesting they can obtain access to senior members of the Government as part of their lobbying activity. Is this in the public interest? I think there can be little doubt that exposing the less than ethical activities of Members of Parliament can be in the public interest, should they be using their position or former position to gain from it, many would argue no.

Is it ethical though to hack the voicemail of a celebrity who is in a relationship with someone else in the public eye, did I really need to know about the relationship between Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan, it may be the sort salacious gossip which fires up the imaginations of some suburban homes but is it really done in the public interest or is it done merely to sell newspapers which thrive on gossip and cheap titillation?

The families of the victims of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster recently received the verdicts of the new inquests ordered after the quashing of the previous inquests were deemed to have been incorrect in their recordings of accidental death after the Independent Panel investigated all of the papers in relation to the incident. At the time The Sun newspaper printed articles which cast the blame squarely at the feet of the Liverpool fans, having been fed this information by the Prime Ministers Press Secretary and the Press Office and Senior Officers of South Yorkshire Police, however the information has subsequently been proved to be false. If the journalists who were involved with the articles had of even asked some simple questions then they may have discovered that there were holes in the story provided to them, surely the job of any journalist who is going to print something in a publication which has both national and international coverage has a duty to make sure that the information is correct. Without integrity and the belief that articles have been properly investigated and not just fed how can we as readers of the press believe anything that they print, so when it comes to something of national importance how can we have confidence in its validity.

When considering if a prosecution is in the Public Interest the Crown Prosecution Service subject the case to a 7 point test, which looks at such things as impact on the community, the seriousness of the offence and the level of culpability. Should the press therefore have a similar test they must go through when considering if an article is in the public interest, which means that if there is a complaint from the subject of the article the press can show the process they have gone through in deciding that the article was in the public interest.

What could such a test look like?

  •   How serious is the issue they are considering? Articles involving crime such as child abuse or human trafficking are clearly in the public interest, but is the romantic life of a celebrity, perhaps an affair could be, although even someone in the public eye must have an element of a private life, at the end of the day an actor or sportsman is just doing a job and when they have finished they too want to go home to their families, so perhaps this does not meet the public interest test.

  •   What sort of harm is being caused? Direct harm to another human being is clearly in the public interest but harm is something that is relative, emotional harm and physical harm can both be significant, but for example will someone be upset by the actions of another, this may not be in the public interests, an affair for example. If some is being physically harmed then this would be in the public interest.

  •   What evidence do we have to support the article? Before Leveson the press believed that it was justified to do whatever they needed to get the story from hack into the private mobile phones such as those of Milly Dowler or Hugh Grant or rifling through the garbage in the bins on the driveway. All too often have photographers sat in trees or hidden in hedges with long lenses to get that one shot of someone in private. The evidence the press use to back up a story should be substantive and verifiable and not based on conjecture and opinion as in the case of Ed Milliband’s father when the press suggested that because his father had particular views when he was younger that there was a link to Ed’s beliefs.

 What is the impact on society? Does the story have a significant impact on society? Will knowing about the sex life of someone have an impact on wider society for example. Knowing on the other hand that an MP has committed fraud on his expenses claims has a significant impact on society as it is based on the use of public money.

 Is the story proportionate? Does a celebrity undertaking a salacious activity justify a front page splash followed by continuing coverage on the inside pages? An investigation into arms dealing or drug dealing on the other hand would seem to be a proportionate response.

 Does the source need full protection? The stock response by journalists has always been that they need to protect their sources, however is this truly justified in all cases? An informant in the underworld helping with a serious crime can be justified in terms of protection, but a source in a celebrity case doesn’t seem to most to be a source that should be protected unquestioned. Police Officers who are providing information to the press for example should not always be protected in every case, Im sure most people would have no issue around whistle blowing but for an officer to release information which has an impact on someone reputation before due process has been gone through is wrong and could even be criminal in its actions. In the Hillsborough case officers clearly where trying to cover up their own actions which we now learn lead to the Unlawful killing of 96 people who went to watch a football match.

One of the biggest concerns for anyone featured in a newspaper article is the provision of an easy right of redress when a newspaper publishes untrue or unsubstantiated information. For many the chance of taking a newspaper to court for liable is outside of their means. So how then does someone obtain redress for the inaccuracies? The press want a system in which former editors of newspapers would be on the panel which would regulate the press, how does this provide for independent scrutiny when the poacher has turned game keeper. The Governments proposal is to ban former editors from serving on the body, to be known as “the recognition panel” which will regulate the press in the new post Leveson world of newspapers.

In the recent case of The Daily Mail article suggesting that Ed Miliband’s father “hated Britain” the basis of the article appears to have been the opinion of the journalist or the editor who had interpreted the writings of a 17 year old boy, who was new to the Country having escaped from his home country of Belgium and wrote that the English were “perhaps the most nationalist people in the world... you sometimes want them almost to lose [the war] to show them how things are”.

So from this statement of a refugee aged 17 the journalist in question has decided in his opinion that Ralph Miliband hated Britain, there is no use of the words ‘hate’ or ‘Britain’ in the writings of the young Miliband so the conclusion of a hatred for Britain is nothing more than the interpretation of a journal entry from a scared naive boy. The newspaper stands by its assertion that Ralph Miliband hated Britain, and although it gave son Ed the right of reply repeated the assertions. If Im honest I would argue that much of what Mr Miliband wrote is correct, the British can be extremely nationalistic and can show huge arrogance in relation their importance in the world, so would that journalist argue that by me holding those views I too hate Britain. I can say for sure that I have been extremely proud to be British, however over the last few years our loss of humanity as Brits has made me consider how much pride I actually have in being British as I see our compassion for others has changed in recent years.

Ed Miliband as the then Leader of the Labour Party had both the financial and political power to attempt to take on the might of the Mail group, had this been an ordinary citizen in a similar situation they would be almost powerless. The current Press Complaints Commission is too representative of the press and seems to be inclined to support and uphold the work of the press being mainly constituted of former editors of newspapers, so in my view any “Recognition Panel” must be independent of the industry it is in effect regulating, thus providing the public with reassurance that it will independently consider complaints about the actions of the press.

So where do the two sides in this argument stand? The Government and Parliament favour one type of regulation and the Press another.

  •   Government: Royal Charter amendable by Parliament, with a two-thirds majority in both houses

  •   Newspapers: Parliament could not block or approve any future changes to regulation. Instead the regulator, trade bodies and the regulator's panel would have to agree to changes

    "Recognition" panel:

  •   Government: Former editors banned from being on the "recognition panel", which would decide whether newspapers were being regulated properly

  •   Newspapers: Former editors would be allowed to serve and there would be a requirement for at least one member to have newspaper industry experience

    Appointments process:

  •   Government: Appointments committee to consist of four members, none of whom could be a serving editor or MP

  •   Newspapers: One of the four members of the panel to "represent the interests of relevant publishers"

    Corrections and apologies:

  •   Government: Regulator to have the power to demand prominent corrections and apologies from publishers and impose £1m fines. Regulator board would "direct" the nature, extent and placement of corrections

  •   Newspapers: Regulator to have the power to ensure "up-front corrections, with inaccuracies corrected fully and prominently" and to impose £1m fines for "systematic wrongdoing". However, the board would "require" rather than "direct" in relation to apologies

    Arbitration:

  •   Government: A free arbitration service would be provided for victims and a fast complaints system would be established to ensure all individuals could afford to pursue action against publishers

  •   Newspapers: An arbitration service would offer "a speedy and inexpensive alternative to the libel courts, subject to the successful conclusion of a pilot scheme".

No one is suggesting that in a democracy we should not have a press which is free to write articles which are in the public interest, however the issue is how the press as a body currently define public interest, is it really being done in the interests of the public or in the interests of sales of papers. We need to clearly define what the public interest is and also provide the public with a clear easy and affordable means of redress when they need it. Having a free press does not mean regulations stifle good journalism, freedom of the press does not mean the press need a free reign to write what they like without being able to substantiate their claims when required to do so.

Without regulation that the public can trust will work for them our trust in the work of the press will fail, it is not about tying the hands of journalists it is about ensuring that they are honest in their endeavours to inform and educate the public. 

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