Friday, 14 December 2012

Let's not throw away press freedom amid Leveson inspired hysteria

The prank call by two Australian disc jockeys to the hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated for morning sickness has had tragic consequences.

The prank badly misfired, with the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha. The disc jockeys, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, are also said to be shattered by the news, However, this incident should not be used as another opportunity to bash journalism. Let’s remember the two pranksters were disc jockeys not journalists, simply because they were on radio does not change that fact.

Following on the report of Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s inquiry it does at times seem to have been open season on journalists. In an ironic twist, the way in which the media tends to conduct the public discourse seems in this instance to have come back to bite them. The polarization of the argument that sees everything reduced to black and white with no shades of grey has once again been seen in action.

So just as with previous scandals involving MPs expenses, bankers misbehavior and sex abusing priests there has been a move to label everyone in that particular sector as guilty, so it has proved with journalists.

Not all journalists are up to illegal phone hacking activities, in reality it is very few. Just as there are relatively few people involved in Parliament, the banks and the Church who have committed misdemeanors. Yet the broad brush focus is always adopted which simply does not strike any sort of balance or represent the truth.

Let’s remember, it was the Guardian that revealed the phone hacking scandal in the first place. The Telegraph brought us MPs expenses, the Daily Mail led the call for justice for Stephen Lawrence and the Times exposed celebrities cheating on their tax.

Lord Leveson came up with some fascinating findings but also questions have been raised. For example why did the police seem to get treated so mildly by the judge? They seemed in it up to their elbows, colluding with journalists and failing to prosecute in the first instance those who committed the offences. As Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has pointed out the crimes committed during the hacking scandal could all be dealt with under the present criminal law, there is no need for statutory press regulation to attain that goal.

There are real dangers that the Leveson report will not be taken in context, as different groups fight to get their way. The rush to legislate, led by the campaign group Hacked Off, and backed by the Labour Party could have far reaching consequences.

The concern of many is that once statutory regulation is in place it will be open to extension by future unscrupulous governments who fear press intervention in their affairs. Remembering the MPs expenses scandal, such a scenario raises the old question of who guards the guards?

The position taken by the Prime Minister against statutory regulation is the right one. Whether it is because he has a strong belief in press freedom or is scared of what some of the bigger beasts in the media jungle might do to him later is really irrelevant. He has handled the situation well, opposing statutory regulation but using the leverage gained by Leveson to force the press into creating a proper self-regulatory process to replace the present toothless Press Complaints Commission. All are agreed there needs to be change.

What finally comes out of the Leveson inquiry in terms of press regulation will be interesting to behold, not least as to whether it results from a well-reasoned wide ranging debate or one hinged on polarized positions born of self-interest.

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