The 'free' press

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11 Oct 2012

Any democracy needs checks and balances to hold the government to account. Those constitutional checks are provided in different ways in different countries. 

  • America has three pillars of government – Congress, President and Judiciary. Congress passes laws, the President can veto them, his decision can be over-ridden and the Supreme Court interprets these laws.
  • In Britain, the Government creates the laws, but they have to be agreed by both Commons and Lords and then “signed off” by the Queen with the Norman-French words “La reine le vault” (“the Queen wills it”). 
  • In Germany the Bundestag is directly elected but the Bundesrat (second chamber) is made up of representatives of the Lande – the regional governments from every part of the country.

Outside those constitutional structures is the “free press” with the duty of holding them all to account in the public’s interest. It’s because they failed in that duty that we had the Leveson Inquiry.  It’s shown that sections of the national Press totally abandoned their responsibilities for a significant period of time.  Politicians of all parties also lacked courage and were intimidated by News International – but unless an independent Press is motivated by higher principles than power and profit it has no purpose and no right to be “free”.

As with police, doctors, teachers, MPs, lawyers, bankers... professional pride looks like arrogance when a failure of professionalism is exposed.  And we need to find ways to control arrogance while preserving independence and professional pride.

The public needs to have faith in their press. As a former journalist, I was branch secretary of the National Union of Journalists in Cardiff in the 1960s and I know how passionate my members were about being objective and independent of whoever owned the paper. 

Journalists need to be encouraged in that passion and be supported in aspiring to the standards of the beleaguered minority who defend their integrity and independence against all challenges.  They seem to be fewer with each year that passes judging by the relationships between the Press and the Police in London exposed during the recent inquiries by Parliamentary Select Committees. 

Victims of phone hacking wrote to the Prime Minister this week, demanding an objective and fearless response to Lord Leveson’s recommendations when he publishes them. They reject self-regulation of the press. The Press Complaints Commission is run and funded by the media – so reports that David Cameron wishes to continue with this led the victims to write this: “We are individual victims of the unlawful and unethical conduct of the press... This conduct has included phone hacking, industrial scale data-mining, bribery of public officials, inappropriate contact with politicians, computer hacking, unlawful invasions of privacy, blackmail threats and harassment... [and] a shameful conspiracy to cover up many of these misdeeds.”

I agree. The Press Complaints Commission is an ineffective joke and we need a new body, independent of government and press but established with the authority of Parliament and the integrity to promote standards, principles and integrity in the profession – not just in each company.   It needs to be driven by the needs of victims (from Milly Dowler’s parents to people who simply happen to know a celebrity) and real determination to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Like the banking crisis, something dramatic had to happen before we realised just how broken the system was. It has to be sorted because we need a free press, not a rogue press. 



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