Why we must protect press freedom

First published in From The Editor's Chair The Northern Echo: Blog: Editor Peter Barron by

Lord Leveson will this week publish his long-awaited report on the future of the British press. PETER BARRON, editor of The Northern Echo, explains why he believes David Cameron's government must resist any move towards state regulation.

 

IT is important for those of us who work in the media to be honest enough to accept that there are very good reasons why the British press has been put on trial, with Lord Leveson tasked with examining the evidence and proposing an appropriate punishment.

The phone-hacking scandal at News International was an appalling abuse of the privileges and power that come with being a journalist. To take it to the extent of hacking into the phone of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler was particularly sickening.

The cruel treatment by some national tabloids of Christopher Jeffries, the Bristol man wrongly implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates, was also shocking in its recklessness.

I understand why such examples of wrongdoing have reinforced the perception that newspapers are out of control and need to be reined in. But the truth is that many journalists shared the sense of outrage over what happened in the name of their profession.

At the time of the Christopher Jeffries case, I wrote a piece for The Northern Echo, questioning the ethics and legality of the coverage in the Daily Mirror and The Sun. It went too far. They implied they had made their minds up that he was the killer, and I asked where it left the contempt of court laws in this country.

Thankfully, the courts did end up taking action. The Mirror was fined £50,000 and The Sun £18,000 for contempt. Not enough, I hear you cry, and I wouldn't disagree. But several papers also made large undisclosed damages payments for libel.

The point is that there are criminal laws already in place to guard against the worst excesses of the press, and the judicial system is also dealing with those accused of being central to the phone-hacking scandal. Let us not forget, by the way, that elements of the criminal justice system appear to have been far from blameless in allowing the phone-hacking saga to develop.

It is my sincere view that for every rogue journalist, there are many more who care passionately about accuracy, fairness, balance, and campaigning to make things better. I have only ever worked in the regional press and our world is a million miles away from those national newsrooms where the shady practices of a minority of journalists were allowed to go unchecked.

And it is certainly the case that local newspapers, uniquely immersed in the communities they serve, make a difference in all kinds of ways. Embarrassing the government into action over tragically-long waiting times for heart bypass surgery, raising money to help build a children's hospice, presenting the case for train-building to return to the region, and - most recently - fighting to keep civil service jobs in Darlington. These are some of the campaigns which have been launched by this particular newspaper, and every other local title can point to its own crusades.

Newspapers have their faults. They make embarrassing mistakes which make editors cringe. They are sometimes totally out of order. They occasionally break the law. But they add huge value to society too.

When the great campaigning journalist William Stead was made editor of The Northern Echo in 1871, he said it was "a glorious opportunity to attack the devil". It was his way of describing the social benefits of harnessing the power of a free press.

That freedom to investigate, expose and demand change has been hard won over centuries and giving it away would be a dangerous and disproportionate response to the recent press scandals, as serious as they have undoubtedly been.

Under a press controlled by the state, would the Daily Telegraph have been able to show us how some of our MPs were ripping us off with their fraudulent expense claims? Would Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell have got away with his pompous abuse of police officers simply doing their jobs? Would all kinds of political failings, sexual shenanigans, and dodgy financial dealings have been brushed under the carpet? Quite possibly.

We need a beefed-up, tougher watchdog for the press. One with more teeth than the current Press Complaints Commission (PCC), not least greater power over the prominence of corrections and apologies.

It is still a matter of damaged pride when a local newspaper falls foul of the PCC and is forced to apologise in print. But I don't think it hurts enough when a national newspaper is required to publish an admission of wrong-doing on page 64 when the harm has been done on page one. In the most extreme cases of malpractice, therefore, newspapers should be ordered to lead their front pages on corrections and apologies. 

It is also important for the PCC's successor to be all-inclusive. We cannot have newspapers opting out. If newspapers cannot bring themselves to sign up to an independent industry code of practice and abide by its judgements, then they are asking for state control. The exceptions to the rule will quickly fall in line when faced with the alternative.

Most crucially, the aim must be to set up a modern watchdog which remains independent of governments - so that newspapers can continue to hold the rich and powerful to account.

When David Cameron reads Lord Leveson's report before it is finally published at 1.30pm on Thursday, I hope he comes to the same conclusion.

 

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