Three-D Issue 20: Oh what tangled webs they weave: a response to Paul Lashmar

Steven Barnett, University of Westminster and Hacked Off

Paul Lashmar deserves our gratitude on two counts. First, he has reminded us all, eloquently and persuasively, why journalism matters. Paul’s unquestionable commitment to a branch of journalism which lies at the core of a healthy democracy should be an example to anyone with responsibility for teaching aspiring journalists and setting benchmarks for policy makers. I have long admired his own investigative work, and he is a worthy role model for those who seek to hold public and private power to account.

3 Steve B - q1Second, he has – almost uniquely amongst the journalists and bloggers who share his view – explained his reasons in a restrained and dignified manner without resorting to the vitriolic and sometimes deeply personal abuse which has characterised so much of the outpouring from those who claim that “freedom of the press” is under attack. I have over the last few weeks taking part in several radio, TV or live debates in which those who share his views seemed incapable of rational argument beyond spluttering fury and a determination to drown out their opponents’ views. How ironic. I have a few theories about the underlying reasons (at least one of which relates to Oedipal deficiencies), but it is a relief and a pleasure to read a contribution which does not resort to ad hominem invective.

It is not clear whether Paul has read the proposed Charter which seeks to implement the main Leveson recommendations on reform of press regulation. It would not be surprising if he hasn’t given the number of iterations before the final version was agreed in the famous 2.30 a.m. “pizza” negotiations. But both he and anyone else who has reservations about what is actually being proposed should read the whole thing, alongside the provisions for costs and damages incentives in the Crime and Courts Bill. They will be reassured. These provisions have nothing to say about restricting police-media relations or about journalists’ accessing public servants, both of which concern Paul. If he is concerned about the chilling effect of a professionalised (and more secretive) government press service, I for one am wholly behind him. But he has nothing to fear from the Charter.

He also worries about “extra layers of regulation and compliance” which would impede investigative journalism. In fact, I believe this lies at the heart of his anxiety about implementing Leveson’s proposals. He worries that the kinds of law-breaking, unethical conduct and unscrupulous behaviour which really difficult investigative reporting sometimes – indeed often – demands will be constrained or stifled by the Charter’s provisions.

Paul can be reassured. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – in the proposals now being advanced which could remotely chill the kind of work which he (and all of us who teach journalism) wants to promote. There is, however, a campaign of deliberate obfuscation and sometimes downright lies which is being waged by a press which has never before been held properly to account by civil society groups and is desperate not to let go its stranglehold over its own rules of engagement.

Let me explain why there is nothing to fear. First, it is up to news organisations to come forward with their own proposals for self-regulation. There are three crucial ingredients: a genuinely independent Board; a speedy complaints and arbitral process which will deal with genuine complainants; and a Code of Conduct which will spell out the boundaries of what is acceptable – just as the Press Complaints Commission code does now – but which crucially will include public interest exceptions which are clear and transparent.

3 Steve B - q2All those dastardly deeds which Paul and others carry out in the name of democratic watchdog journalism – whether stealing discs to reveal MPs’ abuse of their expenses or going undercover to expose a Pakistani betting scam – will not just be permissible but will be positively encouraged by a regulatory structure which can act quickly to dismiss mischievous or obstructive or vexatious objections which are manifestly aimed at preventing proper scrutiny. That is precisely what the Recognition Body, which will approve the self-regulator, is designed to do: to ensure that the mechanisms being put in place by the news organisations themselves are properly equipped to allow those kinds of difficult investigations while simultaneously protecting ordinary people from the kinds of callous, reckless and bullying behaviour which was paraded for months in front of Leveson.

I don’t blame Paul for being somewhat blindsided by the frankly ludicrous feeding frenzy of misrepresentation with which the British press have covered Leveson and the Charter negotiations. There has been no pretence of fair mindedness or proper journalistic enquiry. As the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans – who I’m sure Paul, like me, sees as one of the icons of investigative journalism – said in his Cudlipp lecture 2 months ago: “The misrepresentation of Leveson’s main proposal is staggering. To portray his careful construct for statutory underpinning as state control is a gross distortion.” The hysteria following all-party agreement on the Royal Charter took those distortions to a different level. In a completely unreported speech in Dublin, David Puttnam described the coverage as “straight out of the Joseph Goebbel’s propaganda rulebook.” He was being kind to Goebbels.

And of course, thanks to the internet and online journalism networks, the lies have gone global. In a classic example of modern-day churnalism, emotive phrases from supposedly informed British newspapers have been happily regurgitated around the world, in complete ignorance of the moderate approach being taken. Without irony, the Zimbabwe media council is quoted in the Telegraph as warning of the dangers of statutory regulation. According to The Australian “In Britain, we now have a scary system of state oversight of journalism.” The Sunday Times quotes Le Monde saying that the regulator would have “little respect for basic liberties”. Only if its journalists read the Sunday Times.

This, incidentally, was the same Sunday Times which commissioned a poll at the end of a highly charged week which saw the press coverage at its most self-serving and dishonest.  Astonishingly, despite repeated threats that 300 years of press freedom was being ruthlessly terminated, the public supported the proposed Royal Charter by a margin of more than two to one. Strangely, the newspaper omitted to mention their own poll in any of their hundreds of pages or many sections. One eagle-eyed researcher spotted it on the YouGov website. Some would call that deliberate censorship.

There is a more fundamental problem which neither Paul nor those who attack the new proposals ever address: how do they propose to protect people from press abuse? Calls for “better self-regulation” are frankly insulting given the number of times the same trick has been pulled. The Press Complaints Commission, remember, was a response to the Calcutt report 20 years ago, after equally flagrant breaches of ethical standards in the 1980s. Then, like now, editors and proprietors asked for another chance. And the PCC was devised as absolutely, definitively, and positively the very final last chance for self-regulation.

3 Steve B - q3It has failed catastrophically. It was manipulated by national newspaper editors, the same people who have tried to hijack Leveson’s recommendations and dilute them to suit their own purposes. If we go down that route again, the combination of ferocious competition within the national newspaper market and declining circulations – exacerbated by a newsroom culture which remains trenchantly unapologetic about past excesses – will absolutely guarantee yet more victims of press mistreatment. Some of the “journalism” was not just unethical but malicious, vindictive, cruel, and utterly indifferent to personal suffering. And it was sanctioned by those at the very top of the press pyramid, in desperate attempts to boost circulation on the back of other people’s misery and humiliation. That’s not investigative journalism as Paul or I understand it. And that’s why there is a public clamour for proper, meaningful reform.

In the end, this is not about preserving investigative journalism which is categorically not under threat. It is about curbing abuses of corporate power in the face of furious opposition. In one of the more ludicrous recent interventions, Sir Christopher Meyer – who presided over the PCC as chairman during one of its most ignominious phases when phone hacking was at its peak – said “That noise you hear is the applause of dictators around the world.”

Not for the first time in his life, he’s entirely wrong. That noise you hear are the cries of anguish from multimillion pound media enterprises screaming foul because – after years of invincibility – they are finally being brought to account for the kinds of ruthless and outrageous conduct which has appalled the vast majority of ordinary people.

For the public, for most working journalists, and for the victims of press abuse we have seen a much-needed and long overdue rebalancing of the British political landscape, and frankly it’s about bloody time. This is a milestone in British public life and we can finally applaud not just the politicians who stood up for the public interest – with the dishonourable exception of the Prime Minister – but the civil society groups who finally found a voice. Investigative journalism can and will still prosper.

Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. He has written for most of the national press, and was an Observer columnist for five years. Hi is a member of the board of Hacked Off and he gave oral evidence twice to the Leveson Inquiry.

Posted by Einar Thorsen