Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Most journalists are good but bad ones let us down

Hacked off: Sienna Miller at the Leveson inquiry

These are not good times to be a journalist. I must admit that watching the Leveson inquiry into Press standards is an embarrassing and uncomfortable experience.

As a former president of the UK Society of Editors and member of the Press Complaints Commission, I ask myself: what can be done to reassure the public?

You would expect me to stand up for journalists, being one myself, and you'd be right. Broadly speaking, I see the evidence to date of phone hacking at the Leveson inquiry as a travesty of the real truth about the media in Northern Ireland and Britain.

The fallout from the appalling behaviour of a few is being visited on the many who work in almost 1,300 daily and weekly papers published across these islands and read by tens of millions of people. As a result, the wolves are out baring their teeth and baying for our blood.

Old scores are being settled. Some MPs and celebrities, such as the actors Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant, scent a possible kill. They rage almost daily that the media is out of control.

The News of the World has opened the door to stricter control. Every paper and journalist in the land is threatened with a heavy hand - even though the vast majority of them have done nothing wrong and abided to the letter of what is a strict ethical code of conduct.

Rules and regulations govern every practice in modern life, but they are still broken. Businesses are expected to comply with company laws and the Trades Description Act, but not all do. Professions have their codes of conduct, but people break them.

There is no good reason to dismantle all existing media rules and regulations, any more than the General Medical Council or Law Society should be abolished because some doctors or lawyers are found guilty of unprofessional or criminal behaviour.

So how can public confidence be restored? A number of steps could be taken. The seven working editors, of which I was one, should be kicked off the Press Complaints Commission.

They represent too many vested interests and may well have an axe to grind in favour of their own papers, or against others.

Regulation of the media needs to be independent of government and politicians, but also of any vested interest in any particular newspaper.

Looking back on my four years as a member of the PCC, I realise now that it was not a proper regulatory body.

We were simply a mediation panel providing a cheap, non-legal route to settle complaints by arbitration. An effective regulatory body would have more powers to deal with the most serious complaints.

Every person working for a newspaper - staff or freelance, from editors to trainees - should have the current code of conduct as part of his or her contract of employment.

They should be told that failure to comply may lead to disciplinary action, including possible dismissal for a serious breach of the code, as would happen in other professions and trades.

Complaints upheld against newspapers should be prominently reported in offending publications.

The regulatory body might have a scale of fines which could be imposed on newspapers and magazines for serious repeated breaches of the code of conduct, in much the same way as football authorities penalise clubs.

The public should not overlook that the media is far from being unregulated at present.

It is subject to tough and costly libel and contempt of court laws.

It must abide also by the law of the land like everyone else.

For example, phone hacking has already led to imprisonment for the News of the World's former Royal reporter and editor Clive Goodman and, most likely, will happen to more as the investigations continue. Had the police in London done their jobs properly, more would be in jail by now.

I cannot put my hand on my heart and claim that no journalist in Northern Ireland has engaged in phone hacking.

I think it is highly unlikely, but black sheep graze in the foothills of many organisations, even with clerical collars around their necks.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists marked its 60th birthday this year by holding its annual conference in Belfast last week.

The University of Ulster and Belfast Metropolitan College hosted a series of seminars attended by those who train today's young journalists here in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Such training was never more essential, with the media facing intense public and political scrutiny.

The evidence to date at the Leveson inquiry has been shocking, but it is also vastly unrepresentative of the ethics and standards to which the media in general must - and does - adhere.

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