Leveson's report: To introduce press law, or not?

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Ahead of the appeal court judge's findings on Thursday, two eminent journalists turned academics argue the central controversy: are newspaper standards best protected by legislation to underpin a new regulator? Tim Luckhurst, ex-editor of 'The Scotsman', is opposed, while Brian Cathcart, former deputy editor of The Independent on Sunday and Hacked-Off co-founder, is a staunch supporter

Dear Brian

The history of journalism is not, as supporters of press regulation underpinned by statute pretend, a long march towards state involvement. Campaigners for a free press have fought for centuries against state interference. The phone-hacking scandal has exposed the depths some journalists plumbed in pursuit of sellable stories. But it has done nothing to undermine this truth: regulation underpinned by statute is anathema to liberal democracy. It would do nothing to protect the victims of phone hacking, but it would impose expensive new burdens on national, regional and local newspapers that have committed none of the criminal offences to which we both object. I worry that you want to offer the British people a version of journalism defined with too little reference to what the public is interested in.

Hacked Off feels like a sincere but clumsy attempt to impose on the majority the tastes of a narrow cultural and intellectual elite. A sanctimonious minority that trusts the state more than it respects individual liberty has sought the same outcome since 1949, and no democratically elected government has backed them.

Statutory underpinning would put this country at the top of a slippery slope. Press freedom is the democratic inheritance of all – not just victims of phone hacking – who value journalism's ability to hold power to account. Democracy needs an unlovable press; raucous, impertinent and entertaining enough to secure the loyalty of readers. That sort of press cannot thrive in a system of regulation underpinned by statute.

Tim Luckhurst, Professor of Journalism at Kent University

Dear Tim

I wish it were true that our press stood at the top of a slope, slippery or otherwise. In fact a major part of it is in a hole, and digging. The hacking of phones of victims of crime, police officers, cabinet ministers and people in witness protection, and the industrial-scale mining of personal data, the relentless intrusion, the wilful inaccuracy and the vicious libelling of innocent people – these are bad enough. But with these goes an abuse of power that takes the breath away. Most national newspapers, for example, joined in a cynical conspiracy to conceal the unfolding scandal of phone hacking from their readers, preferring to cover up the activities of the News of the World than to expose grave wrongdoing by a powerful corporation.

Editors long ago agreed a code of practice, including requirements for such things as fairness, accuracy and respect for grief. The novelty today is that they might be required to abide by it. The code is part of a 60-year history of self-regulation that would shame any industry, for while editors and proprietors boasted of how effective self-regulation was, they were free to ignore the code at will. How they can be removed from the position of judge and jury in their own courtroom is a matter for Leveson, but any suggestion that, if he recommends a regulator underpinned by statute, that will inevitably put the press under the control of politicians is nonsense. Broadcast journalism is regulated under statute in a manner more rigorous than anybody ever advocated at the Leveson inquiry. Would Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys accept that they are under the thumb of the politicians? On the contrary, I think they are precisely what you say free journalists must be: unlovable, raucous, impertinent and entertaining.

Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, London

Dear Brian

Your case depends on attributing to all British newspapers responsibility for the conduct of the worst. The offences were committed by a few mass-circulation tabloid newspapers, one of which has already closed. None of the sins you list requires regulation to prevent it. All the offences in question are prohibited by existing law. The fact that the law was not enforced is a matter of deep regret. As for your desire to make newspapers balanced, I do not share it. A partisan, campaigning newspaper press is central to our democracy. I no more want The Guardian to place equal faith in Conservative opinions than I want the Daily Mail to embrace Trotskyism.

To quote Mark Thompson, until very recently the BBC's director general: "Plurality of regulation is itself an important safeguard of media freedom. It is not obvious to me that newspapers that people can choose to buy or ignore … should be held to the same level of continuous supervision and accountability as broadcasters who reach out into every household in the land." It is emphatically plain to me that they should not. Statutory underpinning is unconstitutional. No sincere liberal should support it.

In the words of Igor Judge, Lord Chief Justice: "It is the birthright of the citizen that the press be independent … And that is why, if you accept it as I do, the independence of the press is not only a constitutional necessity, it is a constitutional principle."

Tim

Dear Tim

Even if it were true (though unlikely) that hacking was limited to the News of the World, other abuses are not. Take libel. Ten newspapers libelled Robert Murat, eight libelled Christopher Jefferies and most national newspapers libelled the McCanns. Roy Greenslade has calculated that in one 34-month period Express Group papers settled or lost 23 libel cases. How about data mining? Fourteen papers employed the private investigator Steve Whittamore, who illegally accessed private information about thousands of people.

Most journalists do the job well and have not been part of the culture of unaccountable power. The same goes for banks, yet after 2008, the country – encouraged by a very vocal press – rightly demanded that heads roll, inquiries were held and lessons learned. But when things go wrong in newspapers there are often no consequences at all. No one wants the press regulated by the state, but there is abundant evidence that most people are fed up with a press regulated by Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre et al.

Brian

Dear Brian

Your allegations against other titles simply prove my point: these are all criminal offences or actionable under civil law. As for the notion that "almost all national newspapers conspired to cover up the hacking scandal", it is foolish. There may have been an error of judgement, but there was no conspiracy.

Your splenetic language reveals your true purpose. You and your colleagues believe you know best. You dislike profitable, popular newspapers such as the Daily Mail because you disagree with them and they with you. I share your love of sophisticated liberal journalism, but I will never support the use of statute to impose it upon others who prefer their journalism entertaining, bold and occasionally scandalous.

As you acknowledge, well-intentioned but profoundly misguided campaigners of your ilk have sought to purge and purify popular journalism for decades. Phone hacking is just your latest pretext for a campaign that has waxed and waned since Clement Attlee was prime minister. Today, you have celebrities as front-men and high-profile victims to give your campaign a sympathetic face. Nothing else has changed.

Tim

Dear Tim

You say it was an "error of judgement" that most papers failed to report the hacking scandal accurately. Between 2006 and 2010 The Guardian carried 237 articles about hacking, many of them relating to newsworthy people such as royalty, actors, footballers and top politicians. In the same period the two Mail papers carried just 38 articles and Mirror papers only 11. Not only did they fail to report the public developments properly, but they also failed to mount a single investigation into the scandal. That's quite an error.

I think we have all paid the price for the Press Complaints Commission's failure over two decades. Instead of raising standards as it claimed to do, it turned a blind eye when things went wrong, inevitably encouraging further failure. But then it was designed in a way that was bound to fail the public, because the real objective was to ensure editors and proprietors were not accountable for what they did.

This brings us back to serial libels. Your suggestion that the civil law is adequate will probably surprise the next person to suffer the kind of monstering dished out to the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies, Robert Murat and others. Papers may pay damages in such cases but they don't learn lessons.

If the law or the PCC had been adequate, the press would not be in this mess. And if any other industry was in such a mess, the papers would be howling for real change and mocking the idea that industry leaders might get another round in the last-chance saloon.

Brian

Dear Brian

Most newspapers ignored the hacking story not because they were frantic to hide evidence, but because they thought it would bore their readers comatose. They were right. Even the poor old Guardian's circulation fell during the campaign it fought so bravely. Your conspiracy is a fantasy generated by zeal for a tightly regulated press. You would have newspapers compelled to pursue stories that would reduce their appeal to their readers. National newspapers serve distinct ideological communities, whereas broadcasters must produce news to appeal to a broader section of the population. The relationship between broadcasters and newspapers is at the heart of why the type of press regulation you seek is so dangerous.

It works like this: newspapers break important stories that broadcast regulation would not allow radio or television journalists to uncover. Broadcasters then report and analyse those stories for wider audiences. The public benefits. Examples are legion: the MPs' expenses scandal, the cod fax that helped The Guardian prove Jonathan Aitken had lied in court.

A statutory backstop to press regulation would fatally undermine that valuable relationship.

Tim

Dear Tim

You say I want a tightly regulated press. I don't. Personally, I would settle for a press in which the editors' code of practice – that is to say, the code written and approved by current editors – was consistently and effectively enforced. (The code could in my view be greatly improved in the interests of journalism, but, as I say, I could settle for it.) Alas, editors and proprietors have shown over 20 years that they don't want it enforced, and they have shown in their shabby proposals for a PCC Mark 2 that they remain determined to prevent it being enforced in future.

Nor do I have a "zeal" for independent regulation. I just think it is necessary to protect innocent people from abuses and to uphold standards in journalism, as the PCC claimed to do but didn't. Ideally press regulation wouldn't be necessary, but then ideally no regulation would ever be necessary. And why should journalists demand high standards from everybody else while insisting on being answerable to no one but themselves?

Brian

Dear Brian

Your notion that there is a halfway house between state regulation and independent regulation underpinned by statute is intellectual obfuscation. Hacked Off's proposed "independent regulator", which you support, would be underpinned by statute, ie, it is not independent of politicians. Your opinions are an astonishing inversion of liberalism, and your message ends with another absurdity: journalists answerable to no one but themselves? No, Brian, journalists and their editors are accountable to their readers and to the sanction of public opinion. These virtuous forces closed newspapers long before the internet made many of them unprofitable and returned British newspapers to honesty after their appalling failures during the era of appeasement.

Every time I'm told that statutory involvement in press regulation would be benign I remind myself that wartime politicians used statutory powers to ban newspapers that criticised them and to try to ban others. You imagine that statutory underpinning is preferable to an occasionally vicious and irresponsible press, but it would be taking a steam hammer to crack a nut. Better an untamed press, free from any risk of prior restraint, than the remotest risk of political involvement in freedom of expression. So, "Yes" to the editor's code and an emphatic "No" to anything more stringent.

Tim

Dear Tim

Self-regulation will never deliver consistent application of any code. We need a new regulator with clout that is properly independent of both the industry and the politicians.

Brian

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