Gale`s View – 20th March 2013
Free Democracy requires a Free Media”. That is the mantra and that is the doctrine we preach when I and my colleagues travel abroad to work as international election observers. We set a great deal of store by fair political access to television, radio, the printed press and, now, to on-line information. Censorship and government control of the media have no place in a free society.
Freedom of the media, however, has to be tempered with responsibility and, at least so far as some national newspapers are concerned – and we need to be very clear that it is not only News International that is guilty of intrusion – that responsibility has to a significant extent been found wanting.
We need to remember that The Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the press was not set up vicariously by an administration seeking to control, or get its own back” upon, the media. It was established in response to what were revealed to have been unacceptable and in all probability criminal intrusions into the private lives of not only celebrities” and politicians but of ordinary people at, particularly, times of personal loss and grief.
That the press have themselves been subject to the sort of scrutiny that they prefer to dish out to others has resulted entirely from a vicious dog-eat-dog circulation war in a falling market, from the avaricious personalities of some of those owning and editing our newspapers and from inflated egos on the part of some newspaper proprietors and journalists that allowed them to believe that they were above and beyond the law of the land.
The Press Complaints Commission has been, speaking from personal experience, utterly useless as an arbiter and as a source of redress for those who have been wronged in print. It has been the creature of the press, paid for by the press and dominated by representatives of what used to be called Fleet Street. It should surprise nobody that it has been regarded as a Trade Protection Society rather than as an Ombudsman and it was, and remains, clearly structurally unable, even under the Chairmanship of the estimable Lord Hunt, to provide the level of reassurance that the circumstances revealed by Leveson now demand.
Nevertheless, this should not be a moment for parliament, acting on behalf of the public, to over-react. That Lord Leveson has recommended statutory control of the Press may be, to some and certainly to some politicians, superficially attractive. If, though, we are to continue to promote the cause of investigative journalism as a means of exposing wrongs that need to be righted then we must not apply a solution to the problem that is more suited to a totalitarian regime than a democracy.
That is why I not only support, but myself advocated, a Royal Charter as a means to achieve the end that I believe the public wants and will tolerate – a system of regulation that is fair, that allows journalists to ply their trade without fear of State control and that offers redress to those wronged by the printed word media that is not only available to the super-rich but affordable to the common man.
I have one caveat. A Royal Charter is not a panacea. If it transpires that what the Prime Minister is proposing is merely the Press Complaints Commission by another name, still stuffed full of newspaper proprietors and journalists, then it will not only not do the job but is likely to lead to public outrage. Politicians are often told that we do not get it” It is time for those who control our national press of all political complexions to get it” as well.