Friday, 19 October 2012

Good journalists choosing to ignore all facts: the press regulation debate


In this whole debate about the Leveson Inquiry and a new press regulator, it bothers me how a lot of journalists – and some very good ones – have chosen to ignore the facts and try to stamp on the argument like stubborn five-year-olds.

It annoys me to see the Guardian call “statutory regulation” proposals for a new independent regulator with statutory underpinning on headlines, only to briefly say in the story’s intro “a form of statutory regulation”. It’s wrong, confusing and doesn’t explain to the public what they are talking about at all.

It baffles me to see newspapers like The Times and The Sun calling the proposals “statutory regulation” full stop.

It bothers me to see them all calling it “greater controls”. I feel like offering a cookie for the first hack who can leave the rage behind and show me they know what statutory underpinning means.

I would like to explain what, in my mind, an independent regulator backed by statute would look like.

This body would be created – just its existence set up by statute. The only thing the law will do is say “this body now exists and its structure looks like this, and it has the power to investigate newspapers when appropriate”.

Following its creation, it would have a board of former editors, lay members of the public and perhaps members of other professions.

The way I imagine it, it would mostly not have any interaction with newspapers, although newspapers would be members of this regulator.

Each newspaper will still be required to have a complaints mechanism in place – who knows, the PCC could still exist as a complaints and mediation body. Alternatively, those papers that don’t want to be a part of the PCC can have their own complaints system.

Let me illustrate now, with a made-up example, how the new body would leap into action.

A mother-of-four, Asian, lives in a £2m, five-bedroom house in a wealthy neighbourhood, allocated to her by her local council. She is then deemed by one newspaper to be undeserving of the accommodation she did not choose to have, she was given. The newspaper names her, and attributes to her quotes that are not accurate and make it sound like she thinks she is entitled to what she’s been given.

The newspaper portrays her family as loutish, implies wrongly her children are unemployed out of choice, and publishes a series of articles, each time with a new accusation, in the hope the council will send her to a different, “more suitable”, home.

Despite several complaints from the family, several requests for a correction and an apology, they are ignored. They then go to the PCC (which has no powers to investigate stories, they only ask newspaper editors questions), and the PCC rules in favour of the newspaper, in spite of the majority of the story being untrue.

As it is now, if a similar case happens, those affected must live with the untrue allegations and inaccurate quotes, unless they can afford to go to court. Sadly, many people don’t have the means or the time to take on large news organisations, so they end up just having to accept the abuse.

With a new independent regulator, this family would be able to go to this independent body and explain their case. The body would subsequently decide whether there was merit in investigating it.

If they did, they would most likely come to the conclusion that the allegations were untrue and the quotes inaccurate. They could then fine the newspaper and order them to publish a clarification and an apology.

In many cases, currently, newspapers admit they are wrong. Local newspapers, in my experience, are fantastic when it comes to not only being on the right side of the law and the Editors’ Code of Practice, but on accepting PCC rulings as well.

However, there are several cases, mainly, if not only, involving national newspapers, where the men in the street who are targeted and unfairly vilified, defamed, and attacked, have no access to adequate redress.

Making newspapers accountable for their willing or unwilling mistakes is not censorship, and it’s not an affront to freedom of the press. It’s fair.

It is important to clarify that, in my opinion, proposals to introduce pre-notification or tougher privacy laws are just not what we should be looking for. Pre-notification would severely hurt serious investigations and worthwhile stories. In terms of privacy, the ECHR does the job.

Any journalist with an ounce of common sense and love for their trade will know that this is not unreasonable. Giving people the right to defend themselves, without having to resort to expensive and time-consuming legal action.

I don’t accept that the creation of this body amounts to out-of-control statutory, Zimbabwean, authoritarian regulation. These are the words those who know what their newspapers have been up to for a long time use to defend their right to stamp on the little man without the threat of being accountable for their actions.

As a journalist, I categorically do not want a punitive regulator that stops people from publishing their stories to protect the powerful or has the hands of politicians all over it.

This may sound naïve, but I would like reporters and editors, if the new independent regulator were to be created, to think twice before writing and publishing stories they know are untrue or cannot stand up. Not forgetting sometimes you have to be bold to get the truth out. I hope newspaper editors will recalibrate their judgment and realise some stories are more worthwhile than others when it comes to risky behaviour. Exposing Jimmy Savile was more important than jumping to conclusions ahead of the law on Christopher Jefferies' case, etc.

There are certain punishments devised to change the way in which the industry operates that are just impossible, and should not even be considered. For instance, one of the best things journalists have to their advantage is the surprise factor. You know you’re right to expose someone and you go for it. I would never like to see that advantage taken away from hacks with the introduction of any sort of pre-notification mechanism.

No pressure: Lord Justice Leveson
Even with a new regulator, chances are newspapers will deal with the fines and carry on as usual, because, let’s face it, there’s nothing else you can do to protect the public without hindering the work of brilliant, tenacious journalists all over the country.

My hope is that journalists will understand that taking away the control of the PCC from a few powerful editors will level the playing field and mean ordinary people can have a shot at redress, whenever their case calls for it.

In any case, nobody knows what Lord Justice Leveson will say. If it’s anything that will make journalists’ lives genuinely difficult, or will impose Draconian pre-notification, or silly things like asking for permission to photograph people in public places, I cannot personally support it. 

On the other hand, if it just means they will have to think twice before publishing a made-up story, without any consequences to the pursuit of true stories, I’m fully behind it.

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