Mike Jempson, a veteran campaigner for ethical journalism and Director of the MediaWiseTrust, an EJN member, joins the debate over the Leveson Report in Britain.
Having worked with press complainants for some 20 years and sought a more independent system of regulation, it would be churlish not to welcome the general thrust of Lord Justice Leveson’s Report.
His call for more robust regulation is similar to the model of the Irish Ombudsman/Press Council, a system underpinned by statute — a Defamation Act — which, similar to what Leveson proposes, allows relief to publications that sign up. It is accepted without demur by British newspapers operating in the Republic of Ireland.
Those struggling to draft a Bill to ‘underpin’ the new system are well advised to consider the wording of key clauses in a Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, drafted in 1992 by Clive Soley MP, which we commended in our submission to Leveson.
The aim at that time was to set up an Independent Press Authority (IPA) which would promote to seek the presentation of accurate news and information by newspapers and periodicals and to secure the free dissemination of news and information in the public interest. Its duties would have been to
· promote the highest standards of journalism;
· investigate and monitor issues relating to freedom of the press and to report to Parliament on any measure needed to protect press freedom;
· investigate and monitor ethical standards of the press, as well as ownership and control of media, access to information and any restrictions on reporting;
· produce and promote codes of professional and ethical standards for the press;
· conduct research and make recommendations on the training of journalists
· advise and guide the press on matters within its responsibilities
Like Lord Leveson, this earlier Bill allowed third party complaints and required that corrections have equivalent prominence to the offending material.
MediaWise believes that victims of media abuse and many journalists would approve if these were to be incorporated in the new body now under discussion – indeed, why not call it the IPA?
However, the fear is that the media bullies who have been exposed and reprimanded by Leveson will now be allowed to define a new system of self-regulation and without allowing other stakeholders, including victims, readers, journalists, and their elected representatives to be involved.
It appears that with unseemly haste the industry has announced that Lord Dacre of the Daily Mail will lead revision of their Code, while the rest of the newspaper elite will meet with the government minister, and Lord Hunt of the discredited Press Complaints Commission to supervise moves towards the creation of a new body.
Given the way that the press has engaged in a campaign of disinformation and dissembling about the Leveson’s Inquiry in recent weeks, one must ask why they have been given the right to play this leading role.
The process should be independent and at arm’s length from the industry to set the terms for the new regulatory body and to oversee an appointments system. It is right that industry organisations, including journalists’ unions, should have a say in nominating that independent body, but civil society should take the lead in finding a solution to the collapse of public trust in the press. The press should be guaranteed some representation, but not a dominant role.
It is a pity that the first act of editors, post-Leveson, has not been to concede the widely supported conscience clause for journalists, which MediaWise and others have championed of years.
Nevertheless, some elements of the Leveson Report are worrying, not least, for instance, the suggestion that he has not fully appreciated how legitimate journalism functions.
MediaWise has supported calls for sanctions against journalists who breach data protection laws without legitimate cause. Had they been available at the time of the phone hacking and buying of dodgy dossiers from private detectives we might not be in this mess. These actions are illegal, and should be punished.
However, collecting information about people by legitimate means is perfectly proper. Yet Leveson appears to be saying that journalists should lose their conventional protections, and may be required to disclose any data they gather, on request.
Put that together with a suggestion that the police should have even more power to gain access to journalistic material and it is a recipe for disaster – an end to investigative journalism and a step on the road to a police state. Every citizen, journalist and editor should resist such threats to press freedom.
It’s a reminder that we must all be vigilant. We must ensure that the usual suspects don’t end up as judge and jury of their own misdemeanors. Above all, let’s put away the smoke and mirrors and have an open and transparent system in which ALL the players have an equal chance to determine what sort of regulatory system we really want.
The submission of MediaWise Trust to the Leveson Inquiry are available at www.mediawise.org.uk and