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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Business Development Manager Content/Subscriptions

£50k + commission: Savvy Media Ltd: Great opportunity to work for a team that ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker