Regulation does not diminish the freedom of the press

As predicted in my previous blog post the calls for proper media regulation have started to be met by the press with the creation of a new media narrative: the narrative that tries to convince the public that regulation is really about censoring the press and that such censorship has a political motive to make government more unnacountable.

Andrew Gilligan in the Daily Telegraph argues (in a column titled: ‘Phone hacking scandal: enemies of free press are circling’) that:

The clear danger now is that they [politicians] will see the public anger about phone hacking as their chance to push through a “new and different regulatory system”…

That would be wrong

Gilligan uses the defence of a free press that we will now see frequently:

As Iraq showed, Britain’s democratic institutions are relatively weak. But what makes up for that is the strength of our democratic culture – pressure groups, academia, and, above all, free, robust journalism: the very force that brought this latest scandal, and that of Iraq, to light. Be really careful before you let that go.

But Gilligan – like many others I would suggest – is missing the point entirely here because what the hacking scandal really brought into sharp focus is just how many politicians are deeply scared of the tabloid press. Any politician who dares to take on the press risks everything, for example, the Daily Mail is today reporting that Tom Watson – one of the MPs leading the backlash against News International – was:

reportedly threatened by NI in the early stages of the phone-hacking dispute. He was said to have been told by someone from the company: ‘Rebekah Brooks will pursue you for the rest of your life. She will never forgive you for this.’

When successive Prime Ministers feel obliged to cosy up to Murdoch – often he is the first person welcomed to 10 Downing street after election – we have to realise that this is not the healthy situation of a free press keeping the government in check. Furthermore, I don’t believe anyone seriously wants to regulate the press in the way that Gilligan is suggesting. There will always be the need for the press to be able to bend the rules and break the law, but what the press needs to understand is that the end must justify the means. If phone-hacking had been conducted to intercept the answerphone messages of an corrupt MP who were themselves breaking the law then I don’t think the public would have a problem with this.

But the problem is the end rarely justifies the means anymore and most of the digging done by journalists is for dirt on politicians (which they use to keep politicians compliant), or inane snippets of information about celebrities which they use to shift more newspapers. In some cases – Milly Dowler, the families of dead soldiers and so on – it is hard to see what the end product actually is. If – as a public figure – you take on the press you can expect them to set out to publicly destroy your reputation through whatever means.

It seems to me that an healthy press is one that can recognise that it deserves the same level of scrutiny it applies to everyone else. It cannot tackle corruption whilst being itself corrupt. It cannot scream with outraged front pages about dishonest politicians whilst filling its own pages with lies and propaganda. Above all, a newspaper that wants to maintain any semblance of credibility cannot simply pretend that bad journalism does not exist – whether it is burying their own corrections in tiny print on obscure pages of their print editions or hiding them in obscure places on their websites, or not reporting the indiscretions of other newspapers (or indeed being highly critical of any paper that dares to have a media section).

For too long newspapers – who seem to campaign for the tougher regulation of everybody else – have been governed by self-regulation in the form of the Press Complaints Comission. How can they credibly argue that TV regulation is too weak or that politicians are not open enough to external scrutiny (i.e. expenses) when they do not wish such scrutiny to be applied to themselves? How can they claim that self-regulation works when they dare not even comment on the crimes of fellow newspapers? One of the most shocking aspects of the latest phone-hacking scandal is that it is such a massive story that suddenly every newspaper wants to stick the boot in on the frontpage.

But don’t think for a moment that this is the media suddenly discovering a moral conscience or understanding the spirit of self-regulation. No, all they are doing is ensuring that the anger is properly targeted and controlled, they attack the News of the World in order to deflect any criticism that could legitimately be aimed at them. It is a distraction that helps to portray the News of the World as the rogue newspaper that has upset other editors as much as it has upset the public. As we can now see, after winning your trust with their aggresive denounciation of the News of the World they then start to insidiously whisper into your ear about the perils of press regulation.

It is a tactic that we cannot allow to succeed.

It must be printed far and wide that the News of the World are not alone in hacking, blagging and paying sources for information. According to the Information Commissioner’s Office they’re not anywhere near the top of the league when it comes to unlawful trade in confidential personal information:

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