Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Freedom of expression lies at very heart of democracy

Ed Curran

What now for newspapers? It's a painful question for all editors and journalists - not least myself, with more than 40 years' experience in the media.

The hounds are on the hunt and all of us have become fair game. The News of the World has opened the floodgates of public anger and criticism as never before. Unfortunately, the waters have not stopped at Rupert Murdoch's tarnished empire.

The phone-tapping, police-bribing scandal threatens the rest of us who inhabit the wider media world. Our much-cherished independence from governments and politicians is in question.

The argument goes that if the media cannot control themselves, then someone else must do it for them.

As it happened, last week when the latest scandal broke, I was in London attending the 60th anniversary reception of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).

With so much bribery and corruption in the air at the world's largest English-language paper, it was hardly a propitious day upon which to celebrate the training of thousands of young journalists over six decades.

However, the occasion helped to put into better perspective the real story behind the headlines. For all the highly-questionable, unprincipled and criminal practices at the News of the World, our media in general remains an anchor of democracy. The vast majority of editors and journalists behave responsibly and comply with a rigorous code of conduct.

The UK has 1,300 regional, daily and weekly papers, including three dailies and around 50 weekly titles in Northern Ireland. From lofty intellectual broadsheets to brash tabloids, we have a choice of national papers like no other country.

From the Westminster expenses scandal to the squandering of public funds locally, had it not been for media revelations, how much would we ever have known? That said, the terrible abuse unearthed at the News of the World cannot be condoned.

As a former member of the Press Complaints Commission, I am well aware that people need to be convinced that the media can police themselves. More needs to be done.

The PCC receives 7,000 complaints annually about regional and national newspapers and all but a tiny percentage are settled swiftly without cost and to the satisfaction of the complainants.

The examination of complaints requires newspapers to be up-front and honest, but if editors and journalists cock a snoop at the rules - as the News of the World did - the effectiveness of media oversight must be further questioned. I was a member of the PCC during the time the News of the World was hacking into phones and paying police officers for information. The commission has a majority of lay members, but also seven national and regional editors.

I know from experience that, although we were in the minority, the lay members often deferred to our views and judgments on the complaints before them.

The PCC is funded wholly by the national and regional newspaper industry to ensure independence and prevent any state control, or influence.

All editors and journalists are expected to abide by a 16-clause Code of Conduct which sets out clear rules, ranging from reporting matters involving children to the use of subterfuge to obtain information.

The law has taken its course with regard to alleged criminal offences at the News of the World and possibly other national tabloid titles; it will be the role of the PCC which will be challenged by the politicians. I accept that the public sees the PCC as more of a lame duck than a watchdog.

Unlike other professional and trade bodies, the PCC has no powers to strike-off, or fine, offending editors. It requires newspapers to publish critical judgments prominently, but has to rely on the owners to impose discipline, or sack an editor or journalist who breaks the code.

I would suggest that the public would be reassured if there were still fewer editors, such as myself, on the commission's adjudicating panel, replaced by more-respected lay members.

I would certainly question why working national newspaper editors are on the commission when so many complaints are heard and sometimes upheld against their publications.

When the current chairperson, Baroness Peta Buscombe's term of office ends - do I hear you asking Baroness Who? - she needs to be replaced by someone with a much higher profile and stronger communication skills.

Whatever change is agreed, it must not involve governments getting their hands on control of the media. That would be the road to nowhere and the biggest threat of all to the freedom of expression which lies at the heart of our society.

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