Im May this year David Cameron – appearing on Radio 4’s Today Programme – defended the concept of press self-regulation and in particular he made sure he directed some praise towards the PCC. He said:
“I sense that there’s still more to be done to recognise that actually the Press Complaints Commission has come on a lot in recent years, and we should be working with that organisation to make sure that people get the protection that they need…. while still having a free and vibrant press.”
He added: “We don’t want statutory regulation of the press.” And, pushed further on the whether there was a need for a specific privacy law, he reiterated his support for the PCC.
Greenslade suggested that ‘it may be the only time’ that a prime minister had gone ‘in to bat for the PCC’. Perhaps his defence isn’t that surprising given that he had appointed Andy Coulson (director of NOTW from 2003 to 2007) as his director of communications and the PCC – along with the Metropolitan Police – had so convincingly failed to investigate the role of Coulson or properly challenge his denials of having any knowledge about what his journalists go up to during his time as editor. If Cameron criticised the PCC or gave the impression that it was failing to tackle the endemic problem of phone hacking then it might have opened up the can of worms that is only now being scooped out thanks to the Guardian.
As Greenslade noted, Cameron’s defence of the PCC was completely out-of-step ‘with the negative views on the PCC in recent reports by the media, culture and sport select committee, chaired by Tory MP John Whittingdale’. Furthermore, Cameron’s defence came at a time in which the PPC had ‘been under consistent fire’.
Suddenly, after the dramatic and ongoing revelations about the News of the World, Cameron has changed his tune, according to the BBC today:
He said the scandal showed the PCC was “ineffective and lacking in rigour” and there was a need for a new watchdog.
Mr Cameron said a second inquiry would look at the ethics and culture of the press and he also said the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) would be scrapped, adding: “I believe we need a new system entirely”.
If the News of the World revelations were really shocking – i.e. we hadn’t known for a significant period of time that phone hacking was a standard journalistic tool employed by many more newspapers than just the NOTW – then you could perhaps understand Cameron’s sudden change of heart.
But it’s not. His backtracking has only come about because his hand has been forced by the NOTW overstepping the line in terms of what the public find acceptable. What needs to be remembered is that hacking the phone of Milly Dowler is no more illegal than hacking the phone of any given celebrity. Isn’t it odd that it took moral outrage to force the police and the government to finally acknowledge that an illegal act should be properly and fully investigated irrespective of whom it is used against (although I would of course make clear that the public interest defence should always remain strong to protect genuine journalism).
One final point that must be made – and driven home – at this juncture is about censorship. Many people – including the hopelessly simple Jon Gaunt on BBC Question Time last night – equate regulation with censorship. When Hugh Grant argued that the Press Complaints Commission and along with it the notion of self-regulation for the media should be scrapped and replaced with a properly enforced regulator, Gaunt screamed that this simply meant Grant wanted to censor the press.
This is an moronic argument. There is a vast difference between ensuring that the press does not lie to its readers, libel or defame the innocent or break the law by hacking, blagging or otherwise pursuing individuals when there is no justifiable cause and censorship. There is a vast difference between breaking the law to pursue a corrupt politician or a corporate scandal when such actions are clearly in the public interest and hacking the phone of a missing girl.
Calling for proper regulation should never be confused with censorship, and the freedom enjoyed by the press should never be allowed to be abused by that press. With great freedom and power comes great responsibility and it is now proven – beyond all reasonable doubt – that self-regulation cannot enforce responsible journalism.
It is time for change. It is time for every newspaper lie – be it about immigration, the reporting of science, the European Union, gypsies, gays, single mums, those on benefits, the disabled or any other target group – to be properly challenged and for the press to finally have to take accuracy seriously.