ICE blogs

March 20, 2013

Let’s move on from brutish journalism

Mike Jempson, honorary director of the ethics campaigning body, MediaWise, responds to the recently announced plans to regulate the mainstream press through the introduction of a Royal Charter

If the press think they have been dealt a bad hand by the Royal Charter, they have only their own to blame. Those who broke the law, or trampled on the rights of others with little regard for the consequences, have ruined it for everyone else.

Editors and proprietors who rushed to the defence of the Press Complaints Commission whenever it was criticised are as culpable as the politicians who preferred to bury their heads in the sand or court the media moguls as evidence mounted over the years that some sections of the press were up to no good.

But the solution to the alleged woes of Britain’s newspapers is also – as ever – in their own hands. It is the publishing industry that has been left with the task setting up its own system of self-regulation. In so far as the Royal Charter and the amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill are concerned, it is easy for the press to avoid huge fines for bad behaviour.

First of all they need to set up their own self-regulatory bodies – and they have been stressing they are happy to do that from the first day that Lord Justice Leveson opened for business. There is nothing to stop them having one for national papers, another for locals and one for magazines, or even one per publishing company. It is entirely up to them.

Leading representatives of the press, including Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, have also agreed that the new system should be manifestly ‘independent’ in a way that the PCC manifestly was not. That, and a system of appointment that it is open and transparent, is all that the Royal Charter seeks to ensure. The Recognition Body that will be set up under the Charter cannot tell the editors and proprietors what to do. It merely checks that the regulatory bodies they set up it follow their own rules. What is unfair about that, when the public has had to put up with a series of failed efforts at self-regulation since 1953?

And providing publishers do not show ‘deliberate or reckless disregard of an outrageous nature’ for someone’s rights, exemplary damages cannot be awarded against them. What is unfair or disproportionate about that? After all, who has the untrammeled right to cry ‘Fire!’ in a crowded room? The contrition mouthed at the Leveson Inquiry by the Charter’s critics has been replaced by vindictive indignation that anyone, especially their readers’ elected representatives, should have the temerity to set a limit on their arrogance.

MediaWise has been at this ‘game’ for 20 years, and revelations of the last two have come as little surprise. When we were starting out few, celebrities and business people would risk being associated with advocate for victims of media abuse, for fear that the press would turn on them. ‘We cannot afford to upset them, because we may need them’ was a common excuse for not donating. ‘Here is a donation, but please don’t make it public,’ was another. So it has been encouraging to see ‘celebrities‘ such as Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and J. K. Rowling stand and be counted.

And it has been great to see and hear ‘survivors’ speak out. Too often in the past, anyone daring the put their head above the parapet would risk another trouncing by the press. That is why we ‘refused to supply victims’ as a matter of policy. Few people would wish to be subjected to the abuse High Grant and Professor Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off have had to endure of late.

Even editors and senior executives have been scared to voice their criticism of colleagues in public. Over the years several have admitted to me, off camera and off the record, that our criticisms of the PCC were valid – but dared not break ranks. They too seemed afraid of the very industry in which they operated. And it was not just members do the public who were scandalised by the promotion of people such as Piers Morgan and Wendy Henry whose breaches of the Editor’s Code sickened even hard-nosed hacks.

I have been accused of damaging the reputation of British journalism internationally by showing up its brutish behaviour – but it is the brutes exposed by Hackgate who have done that to themselves. Now should be the moment of change. We could be in for a new era in British journalism, harnessing the latest information and communications technology to improve the scope and depth of our journalism. All it takes is for editors and proprietors to invest in proper journalism, not PR rewrites and gossip.

If they did, they might be surprised at how quickly the public would repay their investment. Just as no jury would ever have convicted the Daily Telegraph over illicit procurement of the details of MPs expenses, no judge or jury would punish editors and journalists who made it their business to defend people’s right instead of trampling on them, and to hold the powerful to account instead of cosying up to them.

The time for whining is over. Let’s get on with developing journalisms we can trust.

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