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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager (EMEA) - City, London

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable