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Gale's View - 01/08/2018

August 1st 2018

“A free democracy requires a free press”.  That is a view to which, as journalist, as a broadcaster and as a past member of the National Union of Journalists I have always subscribed.  Indeed, one of the yardsticks by which those of us in parliament who engage in International election observation missions judge the freedom and fairness of democratic processes. It has long been recognised that the person who controls the media has a very great deal of power and influence over the thought processes of an electorate.  That is why totalitarian regimes seek to exercise ownership and editorial control over the printed, the sound broadcast and the televised world. It is also why under regimes such as that currently in control in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, for example, brave reporters who have dared to exercise freedom of expression are languishing in prisons. 

Freedom of the media, though, carries with it a burden of responsibility to report factually, honestly and without prejudice that which is seen and heard and witnessed. These days the hackneyed phrase “it is in the public interest” generally means “it is interesting to the public”. In other words, it sells newspapers or it attracts audience share. 

Was it really “in the public interest” for a BBC reporter to effectively hold South Yorkshire Police to ransom and to secure the “scoop” of the live broadcast of the police raid on the home of Sir Cliff Richard? Or was it merely the salacious reporting of matters relating to a “celebrity” and a desire to score cheap points over other broadcasters? And while we are on the subject was it then “in the public interest” for the Director General of the BBC to authorise the spending tens of thousands of pounds of your money and mine – money which belongs to the TV licence fee payer – in seeking to defend the indefensible? 

The South Yorkshire police recognised the error of their ways, apologised to Sir Cliff and settled out of court for a relatively modest sum that did not have to include massive legal charges.  Not so the arrogant BBC who decided that it had a duty to “defend the right to report” matters which were not hitherto in the public domain, did not result in arrests or charges and which clearly represented, in the view of the Court, a gross intrusion into the privacy of an innocent individual in the interests of (my words) sensationalising for the benefit of a headline.  The BBC, led at present by Lord (Tony) Hall is now considering, having been denied leave to appeal, whether or not to pursue its exercise in self-justification further.  In a sane world the Head of News who originally authorised this juvenile escapade would have been out of a job months ago but not, it seems, with a `Public Service` broadcaster that used to command respect worldwide. (Lord Hall, by the way, was the man who decided that Tony Blackburn should be removed from the nation`s airwaves for not having committed an offence). 

It is unsurprising that in the wake of the Cliff Richard saga there are calls for a privacy law to protect those under investigation from having their names published until charged.  This, screams a tabloid press led by the Daily Mail, would be to inhibit the “freedom of the press” to expose and report wrongdoing.  Would it?  It might inhibit the intrusive and damaging reporting of the innocent but are we seriously saying that it would be a hardship bordering on censorship if reporting restrictions were imposed prior to the police having sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to make an arrest and bring charges?  I think not. 

We are faced, today, with press and media regulation that, in an electronic and digital age is not fit for purpose.  That a man who has declined to give evidence to a Select Committee can then use social media to `leak` that committee`s report and, by so doing, try to get his retaliation in first is clearly wrong.  The Culture and Media Committee, under the Chairmanship of Damian Collins, has identified many weaknesses in the current regulatory regime.  Censorship, certainly, must be prevented but it is high time that those in control of our media outlets – all of them – recognised their responsibility. And it is past high time that Parliament grabbed the nettle, ignored the protestations of the tabloid press, of the Facebooks and Googles and others with vested interests and delivered a framework that distinguishes between `fake news` and gossip and factual reporting, recognises that stories peddled electronically involve

`publishing` as well as transmitting and treats all editors, whatever medium they may be working in, even-handedly while being prepared to hold them to account if they break the rules or propagate half-truths and downright lies.  

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