The editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, was given an uncomfortable ride at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards yesterday. To the delight of that newspaper's detractors, Mr Dacre was pinned down by the inquiry's lawyer over celebrity intrusion, homophobia, irresponsible smears, scare stories, the use of private detectives and much else. The unhappy editor was left to promise to get back to the inquiry on detailed points.
But all that should not be allowed to obscure the important points Mr Dacre made on the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary journalism. He rightly suggested that a broader debate is needed on the definition of "the public interest", even if it will need to go far wider, and deeper, than his proposal that the views of the public should be secured on the issue via opinion polls. Above all, there was common sense in his recognition that the public mood is such that the existing systems of press regulation and complaints need reform.
Mr Dacre was right that the idea that journalists should be licensed by the state is repellent to the fundamentals of press freedom. But there is merit in his suggestion for a body replacing, or sitting alongside, the existing Press Complaints Commission, which would be charged with the wider upholding of media standards.
One of its functions might be the issuing of a press card which could be suspended or withdrawn from individuals who gravely breach those standards. And while some people will argue that a kitemark for professional journalism might threaten freedom of expression in an age when much news and comment originates with bloggers and social networks, there is no danger to that freedom in giving the public what might be called a quality reassurance. Some information sources are more reliable than others.
Bodies such as the Jockey Club, the Law Society and the General Medical Council supervise their own spheres of professional activity. There is no reason why a collective of media organisations should not together do the same for journalism. The proposal has the potential to improve the standing of the industry, and act in the interests of our wider democracy.
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