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4 February 2017

The Freedom of the Press

Tag(s): Politics & Economics
My wife and I often watch Sky News as an alternative to the bias of the BBC and particularly enjoy its late night Press Previews. These are screened at 10.30pm and again at 11.30pm and feature two members of the press usually of opposing political views. Our favourites appear on Monday night and again in a weekly review at the end of the week. They are Andrew Pierce, Consulting Editor of The Daily Mail and Kevin McGuire, Associate Editor of The Daily Mirror. They previously co-hosted a Sunday morning politics show on LBC talk radio station. They joust over most things with great humour as well as perspicacity and I suspect the secret of their success is that despite their differences underneath it all they are actually good mates.

We were therefore delighted to receive an invitation to attend a Public Policy Lecture to be given by Andrew Pierce at the University of Bedfordshire, where I am an Honorary Fellow. His chosen subject was ‘Press Regulation in an age where public information takes place outside conventional channels’. Something of a mouthful but Andrew really wanted to make sure we understood that Press Freedom in the UK is under its biggest threat for three hundred years.

Andrew was born to an Irish Catholic mother and an unknown father. He spent his first two years in an orphanage and was then adopted by a car worker’s family in Swindon. He grew up on a council estate, went to a state comprehensive and did not go to University. He is also openly gay and lives in a civil partnership. Despite all that, or maybe because of it, he holds forthright conservative views and has worked in editorial roles on The Times, The Telegraph and now The Mail.

After a hugely expensive inquiry in 2011 Sir Brian Leveson’s report into Telephone Hacking by certain journalists runs to over a million words across 1,958 pages. How many of these pages cover the internet? Just 12. The newspaper industry is in long term decline, mostly because people increasingly source their news online. But while there is no regulation at all of the internet, and much of what is communicated there is so-called ‘fake news’, the British newspaper industry is going to be subject to new legislation if the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport so decides.

From 1st November to 10th January the government undertook a public consultation on key aspects of media regulation. The most crucial relates to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which, if implemented, would have the effect that media outlets which do not sign up to an officially recognised regulator would generally have to pay the costs for both sides in libel or privacy claims, even where the newspaper shows it was telling the truth in the public interest. The consultation is now closed and its feedback is being analysed.

Leveson recommendations included a new system of self-regulation but with some legislative backing which is obviously contradictory. Parliament tried to resolve this conundrum by using a Royal Charter to create an official Press Recognition Panel (PRP). By the time this was established in 2014 the national newspapers had already set up a new self-regulatory system to replace the Press Complaints Commission. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), chaired by former appeal court judge Sir Alan Moses did not seek formal recognition on principle, as it would not then be independent of Parliament.

Andrew says this is working well. It can impose fines up to £1m and order corrections on page one of the offending newspaper. Already 12 complaints have been referred to Ipso. The PRP deal was apparently stitched up in Ed Miliband’s office over pizza and beer. Then Max Moseley, the well-known critic of a free press, bankrolled an alternative regulator Impress under the new legislation. No major newspaper has agreed to join. It has not yet finalised a code of conduct for any that do and appears not to have handled any complaints. But it has been judged by the PRP to have met the criteria set down by the Leveson Report.

Andrew gave examples of fearless crusading journalism that he believes would not have taken place under such a regime. There was The Telegraph’s campaign about MPs’ abuse of expenses; The Mail’s exposure of the killers of Stephen Lawrence; The Times’ reporting on the sexual abuse of young girls in Rotherham. Indeed John Witherow, editor of The Times has already declared that he would not have dared to run this story if Section 40 had been put into practice. The risk of paying the costs of both sides of a libel action, even if he won it, was too great. I have also read similar claims in Private Eye, which has a long history of fighting and usually winning libel actions against it, but the threat of paying huge costs even after winning the case would rule out much of its excellent exposure of corruption and fraud.

Andrew was also critical of the way the right to privacy had crept into English Law through the adoption of the European Convention of Human Rights. This had led to the UK falling to number 38 in the list of countries in the World Press Freedom Index, lying between Tonga and South Africa. I am not sure if this connection is valid as seven of the top ten in the Index have also adopted the Convention, but it’s worrying nonetheless.

At a time when there is real concern about the invention of ‘fake news’ stories by nerds in the Balkans who can monetise this through the advertising they run on their fake blogs, one of our only defences against this trend is a free press committed to high standards of journalism. There is not much that you can believe on the internet. Google, Facebook and Twitter are now among the biggest publishers in the world but accept no responsibility for the inaccuracy of the rubbish that is spewed out through their channels. It is difficult to assess how much influence the lies published about both the candidates in the US Presidential election had, but even the distribution of such garbage should be a concern. If it did have influence it will only encourage other ruthless candidates to use it.

Uniquely in the world we have known press freedom for over three centuries. True democracy needs independent media free from political interference. In Andrew’s words “there should not be a finger nail of state intervention in a free press”.  Or as American Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”. 

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