As someone working in the media I find the Leveson Inquiry fascinating and in particular I enjoy the under-stated style of the grand inquisitor, Robert Jay QC, who tackles his quest with the delicacy and skill of an experienced winkle picker. Even more experienced blaggers like the Prime Minister have found themselves rattled by Mr Jay’s picking at the softer elements of their flesh. Lord Leveson is examining the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the media following the fallout from the News International hacking scandal.
No one should under-estimate the importance or scale of Lord Leveson’s task as he tries to strike a balance between the right to a free press and the right to privacy, both of which are intrinsic human rights. There is no doubt that low practices at the highest levels within some media organisations have threatened the very basis of a free press. That they were aided and abetted by elements within the police only further serves to undermine public confidence in both.
In a democracy where the highest standards of conduct are expected, the relationship between journalists and the police deserves the closest of scrutiny. Unfortunately sometimes that does not happen and occasionally in the smoky backrooms of dodgy bars fuelled by libation information is exchanged between the two, which at best may be unethical and at worst illegal. Little wonder that the reported illegal practices by some journalists are not treated seriously by the forces of law and order when some at the most senior levels within the police know that such information exchanges are a common and established practice.
The non-enforcement of the law against illegal journalistic practices has contributed to the call for more regulation of the press. The other side of that coin is when the media co-operate with the police and vice versa when working towards a common cause. Take for example the recent fight against immigrant prostitution or after the London or Omagh bombings. However there is little doubt when it came to the News International’s relationship with some Police that the demarcation lines of good and bad practice were well and truly stepped over. For that reason, Leveson needs to be backed up by the enforcement of due process against those who have committed actual crimes.
The media in general and this writer in particular is not in favour of statutory press regulation. The press should never be restricted from exposing corruption whether at the highest levels of government, business corporations, police or society but that power of scrutiny demands even higher standards of good practice from both individual journalists and media organisations. This will require stronger enforcement against breaches and stiffer penalties against transgressors. It will also require more transparency in the process of arbitration and adjudication.
As it stands the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) does not work. Too many of those involved are too close to the organisations and individuals against whom complaints are taken but this cosy relationship does exist in other professional regulatory organisations. Most of the focus in the Leveson inquiry has been on the victims of News International. Many of them have been politicians and celebrities but given the parasitical nature by which they feed off the media and vice versa public sympathy is scant. Yet it’s too easy to think that all this is much ado about nothing.
Press intrusion affects the ordinary man in the street too –a point well made by high profile media lawyer Paul Tweed in his book ‘Privacy and libel law- the Clash of Press Freedom’. Just spare a thought for the families of Milly Dowler and Madeline McCann. Or think of Christopher Jefferies who was practically tried and found guilty of the murder of Joyce Yates by no less than eight papers when he was totally innocent. His treatment by the police appeared to add fuel to the media frenzy. It has taken poor old Lindsay Chamberlain of the famously labelled ‘dingo baby’ case nearly thirty years to be fully exonerated. The media played a large part in the hate campaign against her and paradoxically it also helped publicise new evidence, which finally led to the clearing of her name.
Closer to home its clear that some of the coverage of the McAreavey murder case in Mauritius has brought it own elements of shoddy media reporting by some in the media. The hurt caused to innocent and already traumatised families and individuals are immense. The media should n’t need Leveson to lift its game- but unfortunately history proves otherwise.