Media Viewpoint: What the papers didn't say: The press has defended its freedom too little, too late, argues Clive Soley

Click to follow
The Independent Online
While the Government moves ever closer to privacy legislation, the press seems incapable of mounting effective opposition which commands the support of the public. Editors recently published their Alternative White Paper: it had little new to offer and made no real impact.

The sad truth is that the defence of press freedom in Britain has been a case of too little, too late; and editors and their owners must take the blame.

The real problem for the British press is that it is over-regulated by a variety of laws, without any compensating press freedom legislation. At the same time, the public places far less trust in the accuracy of press news articles and are much more inclined to believe radio and television.

Of investigated complaints about the press, 73 per cent concern accuracy while only 8.7 per cent concern privacy, and it is the high profile invasion-of-privacy cases that attract most attention in the media.

I suspect that many of these cases would not have been stopped by a privacy law, because of the public interest let-out clause. If, for example, a minister had identified himself with the 'back to basics' policy and was then found to be having an affair, he would still be liable to press exposure because the legislation would almost certainly allow disclosure when double standards are involved.

Editors have brought the problem on themselves by devoting so much space to sex and violence and far too little to more important investigative journalism. Sex and violence boost sales, but if the papers run pages of details on the girlfriends and family of Stephen Milligan, that is not a right that I am prepared to fight for. But I will fight for the right to probe and question the British establishment.

The inability of the press to come up with any new approach is deeply disappointing to those of us who know just how much press freedom we have lost in the past 20 years. I was appalled when the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill went through Parliament with only minimal opposition from the press, yet the Act allows the police to seize journalists' material. The press was even weaker with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which forces journalists to name their sources; the press actually attacked those who opposed it]

I feel equally strongly when the press gives mass coverage to the prosecution case in high-profile trials and virtually none to the defence. They do this because the prosecution case usually contains the excitement and the defence is more mundane. Michelle and Lisa Taylor, who were convicted of murdering the wife of a man who had been having an affair with Michelle, won their appeal partly on the basis of prejudicial press coverage. The reporting had focused on the sexual relationship. It was a great news story if your main aim in life is to sell papers. But what about the rights of those who were wrongfully imprisoned?

So how should the press defend itself in the face of threatened privacy legislation? There is clearly a need for both a press freedom Act and freedom of information legislation. We would then have a secure base on which to introduce privacy legislation and an independent press authority to adjudicate on questions of accuracy.

Individuals have the right to expect accurate reporting, and need to be able to rely on high standards in order to inform them in an increasingly complex world. Inaccurate reporting is disinformation, and in the context of a monopolistic press is dangerous in a democracy. Self-regulation is never fully trustworthy and the Press Complaints Commission will meet the same cynical disbelief in its protestations of impartiality as the police met when they tried to defend self-regulation.

There is no reason why a regulatory body should lead to censorship. Television and radio are regulated and win far more confidence and respect around the world than our allegedly unregulated press. Broadcast media were also much more ready to challenge the Thatcher government and carry out investigative reporting on political issues and wrongful convictions. The failure of the press during these years is sad to contemplate.

I want a free and responsible press that recognises individual rights. Unfortunately, I suspect the lack of radical thinking by the editors and owners is going to result in yet more restrictions and less press freedom. We will all be losers.

Clive Soley, Labour MP for Hammersmith, promoted a Private Member's Bill providing for a right of reply to inaccurate press articles. It was backed by MPs but stopped by the Government.