Here in the UK the practice of journalists and the ethics of the press are under scrutiny, after it became clear that some of our tabloid newspapers had been involved in hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians, royalty and even the victims of crime.
There has been a lot of soul searching – what do we mean by a free press? Should the press be subject to statutory regulation? These are some of the questions being addressed by the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press which is due to report on Thursday, 29th November 2012.
To get some background on all this, Tess Woodcraft went to talk to Angela Phillips, Reader in Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London and chair of the ethics committee of the organisation, Media Reform. She started by asking her to explain how the British press is currently regulated.
Angela Philips: The press in the UK is already governed by a framework of fairly draconian laws, which covers things like libel and what you can report about court cases. You also have the PCC, the Press Complaints Commission – a self-regulatory body which is supposed to look after ethical behaviour.
One of the problems with the law is that all cases have to be taken privately. You have to be pretty rich to take a case against a newspaper because you have to fund it yourself.
The trouble with the PCC is that it is entirely run by the industry, run on behalf of the industry, and does not work very well.
Tess Woodcraft: It has not been working very well. That is why Leveson was set up?
AP: The Leveson Inquiry was set up in relation to a particularly egregious breach of the law which was the question of phone hacking. It was uncovered by the Guardian newspaper, and led to questions being asked in the House [of Commons], and Prime Minister Cameron decided to set up an inquiry to look into the way the press was behaving. What the inquiry discovered was that the press was basically being allowed to get away with breaches in the law because the police were not really taking the subject seriously.
So we find ourselves in this rather peculiar situation. We have an inquiry looking into the behaviour of the press and trying to come up with a new settlement, when we already have, on the one hand, quite strong law and on the other hand, rather weak self-regulation. Somehow they must try to knit the things together.
TW: Lots of people have given evidence to the Levison Inquiry – celebrities and so on – to say that their phones were hacked.
AP: Yes, phone hacking. I think phone hacking has to be looked at in the context of a very commercial, very competitive press, in a very difficult financial situation.
What happened with phone hacking was it was easy and cheap to find out what celebrities were doing by hacking their phones – which is very simple – and listening to their messages and conversations. It was much easier than going hanging around outside their houses or trying to find contacts. It was a very simply way of just finding out what they were doing and knowing the stories you were printing were true (this is important – if they were true, it was very unlikely that anybody would try and take out legal action against you because you had the defence what you said about them was true, which is a defence in libel.) So, it was a sort of short circuit that the press had found, which allowed them to run endless gossip stories to compete directly with what was happening on the internet to, kind of, ratchet up the level of gossip and innuendo in their own pages to keep their audiences which were, at that point, dwindling and going away and disappearing towards the internet and to maintain their commercial viability. So I think what we are seeing is the kind of death throws of the dinosaurs of the old media, clawing each other and everybody else to death while they try to keep their audiences on board. I think that is what happened. That is what the hacking scandal was actually about.
The trouble is that hacking a phone is illegal. It is illegal under the Data Protection Act. And as soon as the police got wind of the fact it was happening they should have moved in straight away and nipped it in the bud. Given the police did not do it, one might have expected that the PCC, the organisation set up by the industry to look after its own ethics, might itself have done something to remind its members they were acting illegally and they should not be doing it. But not only did they not do this, the PCC came up with a statement suggesting that the allegations being made of phone hacking were themselves untrue. So basically, the Press Complaints Commission and the police helped Fleet Street to cover up what was in fact illegal activity. And that is why we had the Leveson Inquiry.
TW: Around the Leveson Inquiry a number of different camps have emerged calling for different types of regulation. Could you just take us through the various camps and what they are saying and why they appear to be saying it?
AP: The ‘camps’ that have been set up around the Leveson Inquiry are not very far apart from each other. But, they have set up this extraordinary smoke screen of fury in which one side (ie the side that represents the press in the person of the Press Complaints Commission and the people who are involved with it) have tried to vilify the other side by suggesting that what they are interested in is state regulation of the press and censorship. This is not true.
The other side, represented by Hacked Off, which is a campaign that pre-dates Leveson by about a year or so, was set up simply to try and remind people that it is possible to have a more responsible press than we had at the moment –and it was certainly made clear during the hacking inquiry that the press was behaving very irresponsibly. Initially, Hacked Off was basically just a ginger group, making a noise saying the way the press are behaving is wrong, and that it should be stopped.
In between the two is the Media Standards Trust, which is quite closely involved with Hacked Off and there is a connection between the boards of both of them.
And then there is the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform. The Coordinating Committee for Media Reform (called Media Reform) was set up to bring together all the people around the edge: a lot of academics, the NUJ (the National Union of Journalists), and various other organisations tomtry to get some sort of joint front arguing along the same lines.
Now, in the middle of all this sound and fury, it is quite clear that nobody wants direct statutory control of the press.
TW: So everyone is committed to a free press….
AP: Everybody is committed to a free press. What they are actually arguing for is different forms of regulation. The Press Complaints Commission is desperate to maintain control of the press in the hands of the proprietors and the editors. So, as things stand at the moment, the Press Complaints Commission is run by an organisation which is known, by the rather ugly term, PressBoff, which is actually the press board of finance. What that means is it completely financed and ultimately controlled by the print industry. What Hacked Off and Media Reform would like is something with rather more independence. Media Reform is looking for an independent body which would still have editors but also ordinary journalists on it. And Media Reform would like to see, contained within it, a tribunal which allows cheap access to members of the public to get redress. Media Reform is also very committed to two, what we regard as critical, things. One is a statutory right of reply, so that would be statutory. We think everybody should have to opportunity to exercise their own freedom of expression, to say: ‘You have got that wrong. What you said about me is not true. And I want the right to be able to explain that.’ And we think, as in many other European countries, that should be regulatory. They should always have that right.
The other thing that is very important is that we need to start separating out what is responsible journalism from the kind of journalism which nobody wants to ban, journalism that is just a bit of fun.
A responsible journalist doing a job in the public interest, looking into the behaviour of Members of Parliament, looking into the behaviour of people who run our major companies, those journalists need the protection of the law to be able to go about their business to find out why people are behaving nefariously and doing the things we the public would not wish them to do.
Then there is a whole lot of other journalism, which is basically good fun. Nobody wants to stop people having good fun, but a lot of people do not think good fun is the same as bullying, and that you should be allowed to invade privacy and basically libel people without any form of redress. We should not be using people and pillaring them simply for the amusement of others. After all, there are a lot of stories that can be written about celebrities, about your next-door neighbour, that are not in breach of the law. They are a bit of a laugh that people will read and chuckle about. But we should not also allow people to hack their phones. That should be clearly beyond the pale. And if you do say something about a person that completely ruins their life, they should have redress.
One of the things people forget is that the press have an enormous amount of power. Press freedom is something we all agree with, but they should recognise that they are far more powerful than ordinary citizens. We need to take this power into consideration. So when people who are just ordinary individuals going about their own lives, living their own lives, when they become of interest to the press, they should also have some power. And at the moment, they do not. Because unless they are very rich they cannot take the newspaper to court.
TW: But surely a lot of the newspapers would say: ‘It is a slippery slope. You start with a little bit of statutory regulation and it could get more and more and more. The only protection against that is to leave it in our hands, to self-regulation.’
AP: Well, that is certainly the argument of the PCC.
But the funny thing is, the Press Complaints Commission wants to regulate journalists. In fact, that would have a greater effect on press freedom than almost anything that anyone else has suggested. As far as the editors, who are employers, are concerned, if they have the right to withhold a press card in the case of misbehaviour they would be able to prevent a journalist from earning a living. That would allow them to just chop off journalists who have not behaved well according to the code and simply employ new ones.
The difficulty is that is does not affect in any way attack the power of the editors. We know from our own work – and I know from my own research – that very often it is the editors that are insisting the journalists do research and write stories that are in breach of the code. Under these sorts of regulations, the editors and the proprietors would get off scott free, and journalists who misbehaved would lose their livelihood. I think that we have not heard enough about what the Press Complaints Commission thinks is press freedom. What they see as press freedom is their freedom to make money by whatever means possible. What I think is press freedom, is the freedom of journalists to do real journalism in the public interest and I think ordinary people should also be given some protection of their freedom of expression. And I do not think the press should be allowed to malign people without being held to account.
TW: So, let’s explore a little bit what kind of regulation, or what kind of supervision or whatever you want to call it, that you’d recommend to Leveson.
AP: What Media Reform has recommended to Leveson is a fairly complex structure which is actually based on voluntary self-regulation. What we would like to see is an organisation set up which contains within it a form of legal redress to people who have been caught up in press intrusion and misrepresentation. Something quite similar to what the building industry does.
Basically, we would like to say to everybody, “Come inside this tent.” You register – and everybody should be able to do this – you register as a news organisation, come inside the tent, and agree to abide by the findings of the tribunal. The tribunal will have the right to fine, will have the right to reprimand and will operate as the first step in a legal process. Any cases being taken against a newspaper or news organisation belonging to this organisation would have to go through this tribunal. This would actually lower the costs for news organisations and make it easier for news organisations doing real journalism to get protection.
We think that most organisations would join it, because by joining the organisation you should be able to make use of a public interest defence. You should be able to say: ‘I am protected in law, because although I did step over the line a little bit, I did it for reasons that are in the public interest.’ This formulation is already operating in Ireland. So we know that it has worked there.
TW: Would you even include the right to hack phones, then?
AP: I think that journalists who are working in the public interest should have to keep very careful accounts of how they find information. But they should have very wide rights to operate on the borderlines of the law if they are pursuing a story that is clearly in the public interest.
TW: What sort of story?
AP: Let’s take for example the clearest we have had. That is the MP’s expenses scandal. The Telegraph bought data that had been stolen from the MP’s Fees Office. That was clearly a criminal act, stealing the data was clearly a criminal act, it was a breach of the Data Protection Act, the fact the Telegraph both bought and used the information was in breach of the law. They have never been taken to task for that and everybody knows that they could not be. Because, it was so clearly in the public interest. Because it uncovered wrongdoing amongst MP’s.
We need to set up an arrangement which says that, where you have a strong enough public interest, you should be allowed to do things that are actually on the shady side of the law. But you must audit it, you must make it very clear what you have done, you must write it all down. Personally, I would draw the line at money changing hands. I think there should be a ban on paying for information. I know most editors would disagree with that, and they say so very vociferously. But for me, the whistleblower who wants to be paid for their information is somebody whose testimony I would suspect anyway. And I think money should be taken out of all transactions in relation to investigative journalism. But if a journalist does something that is slightly dodgy in order to find out something that is in the interest of the public they should be protected.
A regime that put the protection of real journalism front and centre of our legal system would flag up to the rest of the world that we believe in a free press, we believe that journalists should have the maximum freedom to discover wrongdoing amongst people who have responsibility. But we should have a dividing line. If it is not in the public interests, then people have the right to pursue redress through the court. The courts should be able to raise the level of fines. That way we protect what I would call real journalism – we certainly do not ban gossip, I am not interested in banning gossip and good fun journalism. I love it. I read it. We all do. But I think we should hold them to different standards.
TW: So what yard sticks will you be judging the Leveson Report by?
AP: The thing I would be looking for with Leveson is a protection for real journalism. I think he is a very astute man and I think he is going to realise that he has got to give as well as taking. I am fairly agnostic as to the formulation, the final settlement about how we implement law. I think we need a public interest defence for real journalism, we need access to the law for ordinary people and I think we need a right of reply. And I do not really mind the formulation of those three things. But I do think we need to take it out of the hands of those people who directly benefit from law breaking which is the proprietors and editors of the popular press. I have got nothing against the popular press – although I am often accused of wanting to strangle them or being a kind of middle class academic who does not understand.
TW: One of the things you mentioned earlier on was that this is a moment of crisis for the press, and that is part of the context of all of this. The press is dying, the sales of paper newspapers is going down, we are increasingly getting our news online. Do you think there is an opportunity here to examine what journalism itself is all about?
AP: This ought to be an opportunity to look at journalism, to look at where we are and look at the future. Media Reform has tried to introduce that debate and has basically got ignored by almost everybody.
We think this is an opportunity to look at the fact that certain news organisations have far too much power. News International owns and controls a large chunk of the media in this country, and that is not good for democracy. We would like to see monopoly law used properly, to regulate the level of ownership in the press.
But, we realise that is still not enough. In many ways what is happening with the Leveson Inquiry is a complete distraction from what we really need to be doing, which is looking at how to protect real journalism for the future. And I don’t think the formula that the popular press has come up with, is the right formula. They think that, if you compete directly with the online gossip mongers, you will maintain your audiences. And in maintaining your audiences you will manage to bring in enough money to keep journalism going. I think what you do by following that route is that you just rot journalism by turning it into something which is little more than scandal.
What we need to do is to turn our attention to the fact that the old forms of economic survival are changing. We should be thinking about what we need journalism for and how we are going to support it. We have to BBC and we have to be very, very grateful for that. We have one of the best funded, best organised and in spite of the recent scandals, an organisation that delivers really good, trustworthy responsible journalism. But we cannot get by with just one organisation delivering news. We need to have news, particularly at local level, and we need to find a way to sustaining it. And the way to sustain news at local level is not through gossip, it is not through scandal, it is not through bullying. It has got to be about finding out what is happening locally and publishing it, by whatever means and through whatever channel. But that needs funding and we have not worked out where that is going to come from yet.
Transcript by: Maarten van Schaik
Notes: Open Democracy carries a number of useful background pieces on the Leveson Inquiry, see in particular Brian Cathcart’s piece of 2nd October 2012 Leveson’s inquiry into the British press is about to report: let the disinformation begin!
Tags: Press ethics