So finally today is the day we all get to see what Lord Leveson made of his vast 8 month inquiry that involved 184 witnesses. I don’t know if I feel more sorry for those who have had to compile the two thousand page report, those who are now ploughing through it trying to make sense of it all, or those who have to decide what to do about its recommendations.
Over the last couple of days the press has unsurprisingly been putting its sizeable PR machine into overdrive explaining why it should continue to self-regulate. It’s completely understandable that it should want to retain control of its own destiny without interference from outside. They’ve had the backing of 86 MPs from all political parties, writing in yesterday’s Telegraph demanding David Cameron hold off from statutory regulation of the press, regardless of Leveson’s recommendations.
The public though, aren’t on their side. Journalists along with politicians consistently come bottom of polls of public figures who are trusted. Now we’re leaving them to come up with a new framework to ensure the press upholds an acceptable level of morality and behaviour. It doesn’t bode well. Given the history of the now discredited Press Complaints Commision their track record on this is lousy to say the least.
A new YouGov poll released this week has shown that 79% of people favour ‘an independent press regulator established by law’ and 77% believe that ‘after the phone hacking scandal it is no longer acceptable for newspaper owners and editors to control the system for dealing with complaints about press behaviour.’ However, it’s not completely straightforward as only 24% of the public think a regulatory body should be set up through law by Parliament, with rules agreed by MPs.
The press aren’t trusted to regulate themselves, but at the same time MPs aren’t trusted to draw up statutory legislation to regulate the press either. Whatever David Cameron decides to do in response to Leveson’s recommendations, we’re in for a rough ride ahead with a lot of shouting and arguing along the way.
Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, who should be able to read polls extremely effectively, has drawn some sensible conclusions from his company’s findings. He proposes that:
1. The public reject the current system of self-regulation. I hate the hackneyed phrase, ‘the status quo is not an option’. (It is almost always an option, and often the best option.) This time, however, the status quo really won’t do.
2. A new system of regulation must be effective. That is, it must provide a strong deterrent not only to journalists breaking the law, but to them intruding unreasonably into people’s lives and/or presenting news in a shoddy, tendentious, distorted or inaccurate manner.
3. For that deterrent to carry credibility, the new system must (a) operate wholly independently of editors and MPs and (b) threaten substantial punishments, such as large fines, to be meted out to transgressors.
4. The new system must allow victims to obtain adequate redress swiftly and easily (unlike, say, the laws of libel, which can only be accessed by the rich and take months or years to enforce).
5. The new system must protect the right of newspapers to investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, illegality and hypocrisy by powerful people in both the public and private sphere.
This seems as good a place to start as any and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lord Leveson’s recommendations aren’t that disimilar when they are released later today.
The public certainly doesn’t have a great deal of respect for the press at the moment, but in some ways it has itself to blame for much of this. Newspapers and magazines in particular need to sell copies to survive and the most effective way to do this is to have stories that people want to read. Judging by the content of many of the best-selling publications, what people want to hear about is celebrity gossip, sex scandals and controversies. You can’t entirely blame the press for producing this sort of stuff if the public continues to lap it up. As it says in the Bible, ‘The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts’ (Proverbs (26:22). As newspapers have continually attempted to outdo their competitors, moral standards have often been left on the wayside at the expense of a sensational story.
As we begin to reflect on the way ahead for our press in this country, it really ought to be a time when we as the public ask ourselves what sort of press we want to see. We can’t have our cake and eat it, continually desiring juicy gossip and lurid stories whilst expecting the press to act with integrity and decency. The two just don’t go together and we need to be honest about that.
In the past businesses and public bodies adopted mottos and vision statements that drew inspiration from the Bible and often directly quoted from scripture. Many still have them. As a final thought, I offer these passages to the new press regulatory body (whatever form it takes) as suggestions to help them begin to establish their values and principles. Perhaps one of these should be over the doors of every newsroom in the country?
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. (1 Peter 2:1)
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
Have I not written.. sayings of counsel and knowledge, teaching you to be honest and to speak the truth, so that you bring back truthful reports to those you serve? (Proverbs 22:20-21)
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbour,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the Lord (Psalm 15:1-4)