Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

Media won't be marking its own homework any longer

Brought to book: Leveson inquiry report lambasts the disgraceful intrusions of some sections of the media

Ashamed. Deeply ashamed. That's how as I as a journalist and former editor felt as I stood outside the Queen Elizabeth conference centre in London last Thursday where Lord Leveson had just delivered his findings into the scandalous behaviour of sections of the media.

Ashamed that so many totally innocent ordinary people such as the parents of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann had genuine cause for complaint. Ashamed that some of the people I've known in journalism were responsible for the distress still etched on the face of Kate McCann as she stood there on the steps of the conference centre.

As Lord Leveson said, never again should the McCanns and Dowlers of this world encounter such appalling intrusion at the hands of newspapers. As a result the battle lines are drawn today over the future of the media.

On one side are the victims and probably a narrow majority of MPs. On the other, the newspaper industry reeling from Leveson's conclusions yet comforted by the fact that David Cameron as Prime Minister is opposed to statutory interference.

The victims had two aims, both which were accepted by Leveson. The first was to wrest the regulation of newspapers out of the hands of proprietors and editors. As Leveson put it, to stop us journalists marking our own homework.

The second was to give politicians a statutory influence in the appointment and oversight of any new body overseeing the media. The arguments go on but the reality is that the victims are on the verge of victory. Their first objective has been virtually achieved because the newspaper industry is now running so scared of political interference that it will do almost anything to avoid it.

Never again will the industry have the control and direct voice which it had in the past. The horrendous behaviour exposed at the News of the World and among sections of the British tabloid press has seen to that and the media in general must now pay for those excesses. It is about to lose the rights and independence enjoyed to date.

The newspaper industry has really no alternative but to cave in to agreeing a totally independent regulatory body in which editors will have minimal or no say at all. Their role will be downgraded to offering advice, if asked for, in the adjudication of complaints but the days of having a direct say in decision-making are gone.

All this will cost newspapers much more than it did in the past both in terms of coughing up the funding for the new regulatory body and of course, in being subject to fines of up to a million pounds for serious transgression.

Every major newspaper company whether in Britain or Northern Ireland will be expected to pay a share dependent on circulation and profitability. And every newspaper will also know that if it offends the regulator seriously, the punishment will be proportionate to that same circulation and profitability.

The editors know that failure to satisfy Lord Leveson on his first demand of a totally independent regulator of the media will lead to far worse consequences. Failure would mean David Cameron could not win the propaganda war waged so vigorously over the weekend by the celebrity victims of phone hacking and unwarranted media intrusion. Cameron could not hold back the tide of Westminster in favour of statutory regulation of the media.

"You know there is not much sympathy for you journalists and editors amongst MPs," an Ulster voice at Westminster warned me on Friday. "After the expenses scandal many of them are just waiting to get you."

The newspaper industry has only its black sheep to blame for being asked to pay more and risk more at a time when the advertising revenues and sales figures are hit by the recession and the internet. No journalist or editor is above the law of the land. All are as subject to the rigorous scrutiny of the courts as anyone else. Had the proprietors of the papers involved in illegal phone hacking applied the existing code of practice to those employees in their charge, a public inquiry could have been avoided. Those who betrayed the ethics of journalism are pariahs whose sins have been visited unfairly on everyone in the media.

The Leveson inquiry spells the end of self-regulation. The victims of phone hacking may not admit it yet but they are on the point of achieving their first and most important objective. Irrespective of whether there is ever any statutory edict from Westminster, the media will mark its own homework no longer.

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