Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Are the days of journalistic freedom coming to an end?

Another topsy-turvy week for journalism as we await Lord Justice Leveson’s imminent proposals on how to tame the UK’s Press.

And, as usual, the issues rub up against the many laws that already govern media output here.

First of all, there was Newsnight’s total and utter meltdown over the Lord McAlpine disaster.

Watching the BBC programme live last Friday night, my jaw dropped right from the first few seconds. And stayed open for the next half-hour.

It was car-crash television of the highest order, right to the moment that Eddie Mair pronounced, in sepulchral tones, that Newsnight, found guilty of appalling journalism, would return on Monday — “probably”.

The drama continued the next morning with John Humphrys’ now-legendary demolition of his own boss on the Today programme, followed within hours by George Entwistle’s resignation.

Apart from the BBC’s journalistic and ethical standards, the Newsnight broadcast raises interesting legal issues, including the legal tactics the totally-innocent Lord McAlpine will deploy in relation to a program in which he wasn’t actually identified.

It may also mark the moment when the law fully catches up with Twitter, as the good Lord sets about suing everyone who maligned him there as well.

This will likely extend not just to people who named him, but to those who dropped hints, however obscure these may be.

Media attention then switched to Belfast, where impassioned pleas were made at the Society of Editors conference for Prime Minister David Cameron to ignore the expected proposals from Leveson for statutory regulation of the Press in the UK.

I sense that the tough-love proposals of Lords Hunt and Black, supported by newspaper proprietors, for a kind of super Press Complaints Commission with powers to investigate and levy fines of up to £1m are starting to gain traction.

It was fairly depressing to see journalists at the conference debate all the issues and obstacles thrown in their way — both by the law and by the instinct of people in Government towards non-disclosure. Sometimes it really is risible that press officers and others think that openness is a bad thing; that the public has no right to know and that the art of a good press release is not what you put in, but what you leave out.

Why? Are we, the public, not to be trusted with our own money? What is it about this instinct to secrecy that fuels an official bloody-mindedness and determination to place as little as possible in the public domain?

And is Brian Leveson about to make the work of transparency-seekers even more difficult? We shall soon see.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com

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