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Gale`s View – Wednesday 5th December

December 5th 2012

The Leveson report, following his inquiry into the ethics and regulation of the Press , was published last week.  Not surprisingly, because nothing attracts the attention of the media more than matters relating to the media, many hundreds of column inches and many minutes of airtime have been expended in analysis, applause, criticism and navel-gazing .  The bottom line is the maintenance of independent regulation underpinned by facilitating legislation. That is not, as some will no doubt seek to represent it, “State Control” of the press but neither should it permit national newspapers to pay lip-service to a code of conduct, as in the past, while continuing to engage in unacceptable or downright corrupt practice as before.
For the past month or so our national newspapers, with that paragon of virtue The Daily Mail leading the pack, have been engaged in a campaign to persuade, cajole or intimidate those who will now have to take decisions regarding possible legislation that anything less than total self-regulation will represent the top of a slippery slope down which we shall otherwise slide into censorship, dictatorship and ultimately Armageddon.  Some of my parliamentary colleagues, responding to the “Hacked Off” campaign, have signed letters for publication demanding statutory control while others, with those illustrious former journalists Michael Gove and Boris Johnson in full cry, have rushed into print to seek to ingratiate themselves with the gentlemen – I use the word loosely – of the press by supporting a continuation of a self-regulation that has, to date, patently failed dismally.  The rest of us have chosen, rather quaintly, to await the publication of the result of Lord Justice Leveson`s deliberations, to read it and then to try to exercise some kind of judgement based, of course, of the prejudices that, on one side or the other, we have always held!
That “a free democracy requires a free press” is a mantra that those of us who spend time overseas observing elections are fond of chanting.  Certainly, State Control of the Media, which so far as I am aware is not what anyone at all is recommending for the United Kingdom, is abhorrent and freedom of speech has to be a fundamental human right and liberty.  That right, however, carries responsibility and once we allow ourselves to beguiled into believing that the hacking of telephones and e-mails, the gross intrusion into people`s private lives and the waving of chequebooks to suborn the greedy and to generate “witnesses” to support a story are all acceptable then we are on a very dangerous path to hell.  Whatever the Editors of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Daily Mirror might wish us to believe unacceptable practices are not confined to “The Murdoch Press” alone.  The suggestion that a revelation is “in the public interest” when what is really meant is “it is interesting to the public” (and therefore sells newspapers in a diminishing market) is commonplace throughout what used to be called Fleet Street and, sadly, has trickled down into some regional and local newspapers as well.
From the day many years ago when lies published by the Daily Mirror about my at the time fourteen-year-old  son were described by that self-serving  “industry watchdog” the Press Complaints Commission as “a robust expression of editorial view” I have held a jaundiced view of “self –regulation.”  True, when I was libelled myself by a national broadsheet a couple of weeks ago an exchange of telephone calls led to a swift, generous and full published apology but the cynic in me cannot help wondering whether, had the press not been living under the shadow of Leveson, the result might still have been as swift and positive!
What seems certain to me is that a “self-regulator” that is paid for by the Press and has members of the Press upon its editorial and Adjudicatory board is about as sensible as placing a convicted burglar on a jury because “we need professional experience to advise us”.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, for all of its many and recently exposed faults, has been the subject of statutory regulation throughout its entire corporate history.  Parliament and Government have not, though, sought to exercise editorial control over the BBC and the world as we know it has not ended!  It seems to me that, in response to Leveson what is needed is a regulatory body with real teeth – by which I mean the power to levy substantial fines or even, in extremis, suspend publication for a period – and that is utterly devoid of industry representation. If , as Lord Justice Leve4son suggests, it requires legislation to establish and to fund such a body then – and here I remain to be persuaded to the Prime Minister`s alternative view - so be it.  What then matters is that Government keeps the process at arms`  length and does not seek, now or in the future, to intervene in the work of Ofpress as it will no doubt come to be known and loathed. It ought not to be beyond the wit of parliamentary lawyers to come up with proposals for a Charter that will safeguard that freedom of speech that is genuinely vital to both journalists and Members of Parliament who enjoy full or qualified “privilege” while at the same time establishing a body that is not in thrall to either Government or Newspaper Barons and can hold its head up as being a truly independent arbiter.  Such a body will, though, unlike present libel laws, also need to be within the reach of ordinary mortals and not open only to those with very deep pockets.
Parliament must seize the moment to stand up to the special pleading of both the press on the one hand and those who would wish to prevent the publication of unwelcome truth on the other. A delicate balance, certainly, but one that can be achieved.

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