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Can the press regulate itself? The issues at hand in Leveson

Today Lord Justice Leveson will publish his recommendations for press regulation following the conclusion of his enquiry in to the phone hacking scandal and others issues of press excess.

The concept at hand is whether the regulation of the press should be underpinned by statutory law. A tense atmosphere surrounds this suggestion and it has deeply divided journalists, editors and activists working today.  Can the press regulate itself? Do we need law to intervene? And, if strong statutory regulation should occur will this restrict our right to freedom of speech?

People at the top of the media food chain have been making a lot of noise in the last few weeks in anticipation of the report, using their platforms to write in defence of the history of scurrilous tabloid journalism, its magic, its charm and its ability to hold power to account. To some, they are putting necessary perspective and counter-balance to the criticism the industry has come under. But others, like the reporter Nick Davies, have viewed this complaining as the press ‘throwing their toys out of the pram’.  

The issue of trust, and whose side media businesses are really on, has come under unprecedented scrutiny as a result of the enquiry. It has been a case of standing back and squinting, finding it hard to see any distinguishable difference between a top editor, a famous politician and a chief of police.

As Joan Smith, former investigative journalist for The Sunday Times’ Insight team said of the Leveson enquiry, ‘Leveson was not set up because we have a free press, it was set up because we have an oligarchic press’. At the public forum debate in London on Sunday she and other speakers suggested that parts of the press are simply not that free: editors are pressured by money managers; journalists are pressured by editors and political interests hold sway across the whole lot.

The type of media environment many journalists really want, including myself, is a more plural one, a less corrupt one, an environment that is truly investigative, active and local.

However, when I think about the press I would like to see, I am wondering how more law, and, therefore, more lawyers, will help achieve that vision. I am wary of statutory regulation. Do we really need more work for lawyers in a land where people come here from other countries just to take advantage of our libel laws? I am not sure we do.

I agree with the idea that knowing the law is on your side is one way a journalist who does not want to do something patently immoral at the request of an editor could have the confidence to say no. This is one the reasons that groups such as Media Reform support regulation.

Aside from the fact that realistically journos will still ignore their instincts and go ahead anyway – you could take this concept too far and then every reporter is saying ‘no’ and is afraid of the law, and ultimately not challenging the people who need to be challenged.

But then the pro- statutory regulation camp add that it would be good if statutory underpinning came with a ‘get-out clause’ so that investigative journalism with a strong public interest defence could be protected by law and not threatened. But is that likely to happen? Can we have law that is applicable in some cases but not in others and be exempt only when there is a public interest defence such as official corruption? Is that not basically what we have at the moment?

In terms of the press hassling people, there should be greater punishment for not leaving when people want you to leave. There should be more understanding and incentive for a journalist to leave if they have been asked to by a person in distress.  This can be achieved by a stronger code of conduct with large fines – more money than the story could ever make, and therefore a stronger independent regulatory body.

Meanwhile recognition of mistakes, corrections and apologies should be given the same precedent in the newspaper as the original story. The Free Speech Network argues that for many journalists doing this would have the effect on professional pride needed to prevent so many biased or inaccurate stories happening in the future.

We should not kid ourselves into thinking that more court cases will not dampen real investigative journalism. It is important that practices in some areas of the press are reformed; we must, when looking to the future, not lose sight of the interests at play for the future – nobody in power wants a powerful press and we need to protect that truth for future generations.

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