Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Don't let Leveson turn press into celeb mags

Report threat: a rush to implement Leveson will stifle a free Press and PM David Cameron is correct to hold back

I once had to sue a newspaper to get a simple correction. It quoted a criminal calling me a liar over a story I had written for another outlet.

My story was true, that was accepted. Even if it hadn't been the word "liar" implied that I had deliberately made up and was not simply mistaken. That is libellous and goes to a writer's reputation.

All the offending paper would offer was a letter, which wasn't good enough. I needed them to accept that their story had been untrue which they did just before the hearing. They also published an apology and paid me damages with legal fees.

I had to risk money to take the case and it took time during which the "liar" accusation was repeated gleefully but anonymously on the internet, possibly by the person who made it. I needed a correction and I would rather have had it sooner and no damages. So I fully agree that there should be some mechanism for getting a prompt correction where a story is shown to be wrong, as there is in the Belfast Telegraph through our reader's editor Paul Connolly.

That is the good part of Lord Leveson's recommendations on the Press, but there is a lot that is less positive. Many of the ills that he sought to address are already illegal, for instance phone hacking, and journalists may well go to jail for them. In any case regulation wouldn't necessarily stop them happening again.

The BBC is heavily regulated but it still made its false allegations against Lord McAlpine without checking the facts properly. RTE is also regulated but it accused an innocent priest of raping a Kenyan teenager and making her pregnant. Despite regulation the station refused an apology until brought to court.

The tens of thousands of people signing a petition in favour of Press regulation need to realise that it won't necessarily stop abuses. On the other hand it will introduce a degree of state scrutiny of the media when it is the job of the media to scrutinise the state. Leveson also seeks to punish whistleblowers and leakers in state bodies, urging them to speak to their superiors or go to the police.

This means the state scrutinising the state and would stop stories like the MPs expenses scandal dead. The full details of that were leaked, for money, to the Daily Telegraph.

Public servants who feared a cover up would stop briefing journalists who were forced to disclose confidential sources under Leveson's law.

The end result would a tame and supine Press, spoon fed with official Press releases and self serving celebrity gossip. It would be OK magazine writ large.

The other side would be journalists facing jail for refusing to betray ethical principles of confidentiality.

David Cameron is right to resist. We need an independent body to adjudicate and mediate disputes over coverage. It could involve binding mediation and there could be appeals to the courts but the Government, and its appointees, should come nowhere near it. A rush to fully implement Leveson would stifle Press freedom without ending the problems of reckless journalism.

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