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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's Not About Press Freedom Any More, But About Press Responsibility

80 MPs and peers have signed a letter urging David Cameron not to accept any recommendation for statutory oversight of the press, should such be made by Lord Leveson in his much anticipated report.  In many ways it is encouraging that so many legislators, themselves often the target of press attacks, should be so concerned about what they have termed an issue of free speech.  They are right in wanting to steer clear of political control of any media outlet.  But the issue for the British press is no longer really one of free speech.  It is one of responsibility.

The Leveson Inquiry's exhaustive hearings heard example after example of an astonishing abuse of press power.  This wasn't simply the willingness of some newspapers to use illegal methods to obtain information.  It was also their relentless commitment to the harassment and persecution of those who they decided, often on a whim or on the barest of hard knowledge, to victimise.  Famous examples of non-celebrity figures include the McCanns and Chris Jeffries, but they were hardly the first.  There have been many more low-profile examples of consistent press abuse.  The stories of Juliet Shaw and an innocent deputy headmistress, both caught up in the Daily Mail's tangled web of media ethics, serve as a reminder of just what happens when there isn't a major inquiry into the conduct of the press.    The Sun managed to identify an innocent man as a paedophile and never produced an apology, so strong is the current system of press regulation.  There are plentiful, regular examples of how an out of control press - particularly the tabloids - smear people's reputations with no requirement to apologise or make restitution when they are proved - as they so often are - wrong.  The intrusion of the press into people's private lives continues unabated.  The best observation of press antics comes at the moment from heroic blogs such as Tabloid Watch and The Media Blog, and it makes depressing reading.

The MPs who signed the letter today rightly consider that the ability of the press to investigate political and commercial interets without fear or favour should be unhindered.  Absolutely.  The problem is that it so often doesn't.  It isn't MPs or political interests who require the defence of a proper system of regulatory control.  It is the little people, the small people's interests, who urgently require this support.  The very people MPs should be representing and whose interests they should be considering.  It is in some ways astonishing that the 80 signatories of today's letter have been so willing to leap to the defence of powerful, vested media interests, but have remained mute when ordinary people have been victims of press abuse.  But then, many MPs and ministers mix freely with the owners, editors and reporters of the press.  David Cameron's friendship with Rebekah Brooks, Michael Gove's one-time employment with Rupert Murdoch's Times, Boris Johnson's current employment with the Black twins' Telegraph, Jeremy Hunt's cringe-inducingly cosy emails and texts to a senior aide of the Murdoch corporation - all of these relationships betoken an unhealthy danse macabre that wholly fails to protect us from a rampaging, lazy, abusive press system.

It is notable that the Guardian - a paper which has impeccable investigative credentials when reporting on the powerful and the wealthy - has published a poll finding today suggesting that 79% of the public want a powerful regulatory body to control the press.  It would be difficult to find an issue on which there is such variance between our representatives and ourselves.

Preventing the press from publishing untrue statements that irreparably damage people's lives is not the same - nowhere near - as political control and it is a pity that the letter signatories don't realise this.  It was Stanley Baldwin years ago - using a comparison possibly offered to him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling - who noted that the press "have great power without any responsibility.  The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."  Too much of the British print media has failed to show even the slightest hint of willingness to regulate themselves.  It is time they were subject to the same strictures as every other organisation in this country, for they wield the greatest power, and power should never be allowed to go unchecked.


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