Journalists’ use of a public interest defence to protect their sources has been strengthened immeasurably by the decision of the Metropolitan Police to abandon its misjudged attempt to use the Official Secrets Act to pursue the Guardian over the Milly Dowler story.
But the mindset which gave rise to the authorisation of such draconian measures reflects a backlash within officialdom to the run of recent media disclosures, ranging from collusion between Rupert Murdoch’s media companies, the Police and government to the House of Commons’ cover-up over MPs expenses.
The clamour for some form of statutory regulation of the press will be a recurring theme as Lord Justice Leveson and his panel get deeper into their task of examining the relationship between the press and the public. Without doubt it is their remit on press regulation which gives journalists the greatest cause for concern.
The inquiry has a delicate balancing act to perform: any recommendations to tighten the rules on editorial standards and media ownership must not create a democratic deficit by inflicting further damage on the already strained vitality of British journalism.
Budgets for news gathering have been decimated across the industry by a combination of a rapid decline in the circulation of national and local newspapers, a continuing fall in advertising revenue and severe financial restraints on the BBC and other broadcasters. Journalists have become ever more dependent on the flow of information from the burgeoning public relations and public affairs industries.
Tied as they increasingly are to their desks and computer terminals, today’s reporters have been forced to abandon many of the traditional day-to-day tasks of news gathering. Across the country at local council offices, courts and even parliaments and assemblies, the press benches and galleries are empty for much of the time, a sad reminder of the days when the news was dominated by the reporting of who said what, where and when.
Nonetheless despite all the competitive pressures imposed by a shrinking market for newspapers and fragmenting radio and television audiences, Britain has retained a proud record for investigative and campaigning journalism. Around the world there is recognition that the journalists of the United Kingdom have a well-earned reputation for challenging politicians and officialdom and for not being intimidated by authoritarian governments.
There is also widespread respect for the strength of the democratic safeguard which is provided for by a vibrant free press alongside a regulated broadcasting sector. An arrangement which has stood the test of time should not be jeopardised because of the appalling abuses and excesses of one media conglomerate and the added failure of the Press Complaints Commission to restrain the intrusive and unlawful practices of some journalists.
Britain’s long-standing defence against the bravado and political promiscuity of successive media proprietors has been the enforcement of a strict licensing regime for radio and television. News and current affairs output has to be non partisan and politically neutral.
While newspapers remain free to try to influence the news agenda and favour one political party or another, broadcasting offers an arena where politicians can argue their point safe in the knowledge that presenters and interviewers are duty bound to remain impartial and to do all they can to guarantee a fair if not equal allocation of air time.
Opinion surveys indicate historically low levels of public trust for newspapers but the results are far healthier for the BBC and other leading broadcasters. Perhaps unsurprisingly audience research also continues to suggest that most people decide how to vote on the basis of what they see and hear their politicians say on radio and television rather than what they read in the newspapers.
For all its faults the basic frame work of the balance between a free press and a regulated broadcasting industry – and their over-arching relationships with Britain’s democratic institutions – should be understood and appreciated.
When looked at in the round activists across the spectrum have had cause over the years to be grateful for the political campaigns which have been waged through the highly-partisan columns of the national press.
Just as today’s Euro-sceptics take comfort from the aggressive anti-European agenda of the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express, so the social reformers of the 1960s applauded the Daily Mirror’s staunch support for the abolition of the death penalty. Similarly on polling day the two main parties have both been the beneficiaries of the patronage of press barons.
According to Cecil King, chairman of International Publishing Corporation – which then had a forty per cent share of the national newspaper market – it was the Daily Mirror’s “intense and extremely effective” propaganda for the Labour Party which “won” the 1964 general election for Harold Wilson.
Three decades later, when Rupert Murdoch’s share of daily newspaper sales mirrored that previously held by IPC, Kelvin Mackenzie’s infamous front page headline “It’s the Sun Wot Won it” claimed victory for the Conservatives on John Major’s behalf in the 1992 general election.
But just as Cecil King overreached himself in 1968 by seeking to use the Daily Mirror to engineer a coup to oust Harold Wilson and replace his administration with a national government, Rupert Murdoch abused the power of his newspapers to influence the governments of the day and gain unfair commercial advantage.
Political collusion of one form or another is in the DNA of the national press but such was Murdoch’s ability to exploit the patronage of his newspapers and convince politicians to do his bidding that he succeeded in establishing a cross-media empire of unprecedented proportions.
Successive Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition vied with each other for the backing of a media magnate who controlled the editorial line of four national newspapers, the two daily and Sunday papers with the largest circulations, the Sun and the News of the World, and their two well-respected sister titles, The Times and the Sunday Times.
Such was their determination to avoid incurring the wrath of the Murdoch press that successive ministers turned a blind eye to News International’s cynical predatory pricing and the blatant use of the Sun to cross promote the purchase of satellite dishes for Sky Television.
Murdoch’s wilful manipulation of his political links was mirrored by many of his executives and journalists who were only too prepared to publish smear stories intended to instil fear among politicians who were seen as a threat, an arrogance which gave rise to unlawful practices such as the interception of telephone messages. Covert collaboration with the Murdoch press was not restricted to Westminster: senior officers in the Metropolitan Police enjoyed the hospitality and largesse which was in the gift of Murdoch’s entourage.
Lord Justice Leveson’s first task is to consider the case for new controls on media ownership and the need for tighter regulation of journalistic standards.
The judge and his panel will have to tackle a diverse set of challenges: Should there be a limit on the ownership of newspapers, radio and television? Should self-regulation of the press be replaced with a statutory system and if so who should pay? Should individuals who have been misreported gain the right of reply and an equally prominent correction? Should journalists be granted a conscience clause in their terms of employment to prevent the dismissal of reporters who refuse to engage in questionable or dishonest practices?
While activists argue the case for what is becoming an ever-expanding shopping list of potential remedies for abuses of media power, campaigners must not lose sight of the need to ensure that there are mechanisms in place to enforce any recommendations which Lord Leveson might make.
Self regulation of newspapers had already been undermined by the withdrawal from the Press Complaints Commission of Express Newspapers. Any new regulatory body will have to grapple with the task of finding a way to enforce its authority without damaging the freedom of expression.
Sanctions might have to be considered by national and local governments if they find they have to deal with newspapers and other news organisations which refuse to comply with new codes of conduct for media practices.
One inducement might be the withdrawal of the privileges which accredited journalists enjoy such as the supply of advance copies of government papers or access to off-the-record briefings. Democratic institutions should have both the power and the ability to do what they can to enforce higher journalistic standards and while there should be no attempt to limit freedom of expression, there is no reason why competitive pressures within the media should not be harnessed in an attempt to ensure the widest possible respect for proper ethical behaviour.