Responsible investigative journalism, exposing corruption, criminality and incompetence are essential features of a democracy. Hacking Millie Dowler’s phone, publishing Kate McCann’s private diary and treating the innocent Christopher Jeffries as guilty were irresponsible and unacceptable.
The failure of the press to abstain from the latter whilst fulfilling the former was the reason for Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry which reported this week.
The Judge concluded that the press had “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people” for many years and his recommendations aimed at protecting the rights of victims and people with complaints against newspaper reporting. Too often reputations are damaged by inaccurate reporting whilst retraction takes ages and apologies are far from prominent. The critical challenge is how to correct all this without impeding the freedom of the press to perform its essential functions.
Hitherto this has been the responsibility of the Press Complaints Commission, which has clearly failed. Its membership included editors and others too involved in the industry to be effective regulators. Lord Leveson’s solution is a genuinely independent body backed by legislation to uphold press standards whilst maintaining the rights of victims of unethical journalism to seek redress. Therein lies a real problem for the Government and Parliament. They all want this end but disagree about whether or not it is backed by statute. The Prime Minister and a majority of Conservatives are wary of using the law to regulate the press because this could be a first step, totally inimical with democracy, towards limiting free speech. Ed Miliband and a majority of his party think Leveson’s recommendations are reasonable and proportionate. Nick Clegg supports the Leveson line.
Cynics suggest that this disagreement is not one of principle but about electoral advantage; Cameron is courting the press whilst Miliband is courting those who care more about the victims. Such cynicism is inevitable in a relativist culture but the press is partly to blame for cultivating a negative and false view of our politicians as hungry for office but caring little for their constituents.
All parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable. If the regulator is to have the power to fine a newspaper up to £1 million or 1% of its turnover for breaching a new code of conduct, it is difficult to see how this can be enforced without the authority of statute. The ownership of British national newspapers is in too few hands, giving real power to their proprietors. The authority of a new, independent regulator would be undermined if any publisher refused to sign up to the new body, so some sort of statutory obligation seems necessary to prevent this.
Christians have a legitimate perspective on this controversy because truthfulness is important in our hierarchy of values, as is love for our neighbours, especially victims of injustice. Equally, freedom of speech and communication are essential for mission so we ought not ignore this controversy but pray for those responsible for deciding its outcome.