The Observer, Guardian’s sister newspaper in the UK, has written a brilliant editorial on how the Press and Media in general should put its house in order. Titled The press must put its own house in order, the editorial says much “tougher self-regulation is not a threat to press freedom but a last bastion to protect it” as it would “help silence demands for dangerous privacy laws designed to suit politicians”. Do you agree?
Given the threat the South African Press and Media is under I thought this is quite an appropriate piece. And here the full editorial as published by The Observer newspaper:
Britain has a free press. Newspapers are allowed to criticise government and expose wrongdoing by public officials. They are also at liberty to publish prurient speculation about the private lives of minor celebrities.
Often, these revelations have a tenuous claim to be in the public interest, although the way they boost sales proves that they interest the public, which is a different thing entirely.
In theory, there are a only handful of prohibitions on what can be published. In practice, courts are getting increasingly aggressive in the way they use those limited powers to gag the press. One instrument that has become notorious in recent weeks is the injunction that grants anonymity to the subjects of particular stories. In some cases, mention even of the existence of a ban is forbidden. The existence of any such device should provoke suspicion in a democracy.
Many of the stories involved relate to sexual peccadilloes of people who are in the public eye but not concerned with public policy: adulterous footballers and actors. There is a strong argument that their intimate affairs should not be ransacked as spectator sport.
But there are other, less clear cases. Politicians, corporations and bankers whose actions have an impact on ordinary lives must forfeit some of their right to privacy.
There is a huge grey area in between. Many high-profile figures trade on an artificially constructed image of their private lives for profit. If there is a huge hypocrisy behind that image, perhaps the consuming public has a right to know?
The rich and powerful have always tried to silence their detractors, although the traditional mechanism inBritainhas been libel law. A blanket right to privacy is a relatively recent innovation. It derives from article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which, under the 1998 Human Rights Act, was incorporated intoUKlaw. A countervailing force is article 10 which guarantees freedom of expression.
Courts are expected to weigh these conflicting imperatives. That power of arbitration irritates journalists since it overrides their professional autonomy. But it also annoys Parliament on a point of constitutional order. If there are to be rules about privacy, mutter some MPs, they should be set by the House of Commons, not devised ad hoc by judges.
There is, for now, not much appetite inWestminsterfor a grand Privacy Act and rightly so. There is every danger that politicians would shape it to suit their secretive habits. Parliament has only ever embraced transparency after a fight and a scandal. Even a liberal statute might be open to authoritarian interpretation. It would give the police a hand in regulating the press, which is a grim prospect.
The key question is not whether Parliament should set new press rules, but why it is that a clamour has arisen for something to be done.
Some judges are prejudiced in favour of privacy and wary of journalists’ claims to be acting as noble crusaders for freedom. Courts might be less trigger-happy with injunctions if newspapers had not so often published material based on invasions of privacy where the “public interest” defence is meretricious.
There is an absolutist argument that says the investigative ferocity of the British press is a good in itself. The fact that it is sometimes directed at celebrities is a price worth paying, goes the argument, when it is also regularly applied to worthier targets. Footballers and their wives, in this view, are collateral damage in the wider war against lies, corruption and official secrecy.
Lies, bullying and kiss-and-tell profiteering do, sadly, go unpunished too often in newsrooms. But a lot of investigative energy is also spent unearthing serious abuses of power, not only in politics but, just as often, at the sleazier side of sport.
The newspaper industry is competitive, irreverent and tenacious in pursuit of a story. Those traits make it an effective check on arrogant, unaccountable power.
The problem is that the press itself is charged with arrogance and unaccountability.
The Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the body through which newspapers govern themselves, is not, as sometimes alleged, a feeble apologist for the trade. Editors take its adjudications seriously; reporters generally obey when it requests they leave subjects alone. The PCC code of practice demands respect for privacy in terms that hardly differ from the rights extended under the European Convention. Its successes in policing that right go unnoticed by definition, because journalists have not reported whatever it is they were asked not to report.
But no other powerful institution enjoys the privilege of self-regulation on such a scale. Journalists like it this way, but the public does not share newspapers’ generous evaluation of their own integrity. The PCC is little known outside the industry. It is generally respected within it, but it should be more feared. It needs tougher powers of sanction. It should, for example, be able to force retractions of bad journalism on a scale appropriate to the offence. Since the motive for invading privacy is often commercial, there should be financial disincentives too. The PCC should levy fines for gross breaches of its code.
Much tougher self-regulation is not a threat to press freedom but a last bastion to protect it. Such regulation would help silence demands for dangerous privacy laws designed to suit politicians. It would also enhance journalists’ authority, marking a useful distinction between the press, which has rules, and those sections of the blogosphere which have none.
Currently, journalists are trusted in society at around the same level as politicians and used-car salesmen. That is one reason why judges feel relaxed about gagging them. Newspapers should not crave respectability for its own sake, but they should do more to resist being seen as disreputable.
Serving up what interests the public makes good commercial sense, but it is not enough simply to entertain. A press that is admired by decent citizens and feared by crooks would easily shrug off attempts at political or judicial interference. That is how the real public interest is served.
What do you think of this brilliant piece?