Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

We must keep MPs’ hands off the Press

One's heart could not help but go out to Bob and Sally Dowler yesterday. Their daughter Milly was murdered in 2002. After she had been killed her mobile phone was hacked into by journalists working for the News of the World desperate for an angle on the story. It was a heinous crime.

The actions of the journalists broke the law and arrests have been made. The newspaper has been closed down. With their usual grace and dignity the Dowlers were in London yesterday to urge Parliament to adopt fully the recommendations put forward by Lord Justice Leveson on press regulation.

Despite all they have been through today we respectfully say we cannot agree. The reason is simple. The Leveson recommendations go too far. They deliver the press into the hands of Parliament for the first time in more than 300 years.

Lord Justice Leveson says they do not. He says rightly that some section of the press have "wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people". He argues for a new self-regulatory body to police the press but adds that it must be overseen by watchdog Ofcom, whose chairman is appointed by government. An Act of Parliament would be needed for this which would have to examine whether the codes by which the new body judges the industry were adequate. There is much of this sort of talk in the 2,000 page report but it boils down to one thing. Politicians would have influence over and access to legislation which controls the press to a degree not seen since 1695.

There would be no guarantees that in the future the review of such an Act would not be subject to the interference from politicians more than willing to neuter a free press. To say so is not for one minute to negate the genuine feelings of grief felt by the Dowlers and others like them who have been victims of some journalists. But taking this last step, introducing statutory regulation, is one we make at our peril in a vital, democratic society. This newspaper does not always agree with the Prime Minister but we wholeheartedly concur with him that the risk of restricting freedom of speech through this proposal is real.

Even before yesterday there was a truth which press regulation campaigners appear not to be able to grasp. Virtually every example of bad behaviour by journalists mentioned in the Leveson report yesterday is covered by existing law. In many cases a failure of law enforcement was the real issue.

That is not to say that the press does not have to win back public confidence as well as accept that the industry was guilty of some hideous practice. And in this aspect much of what Leveson recommends should work. A self- regulatory body free of existing editors with the ability to impose large fines and enforce front page apologies where necessary makes sense. As does the setting up of a legally enforceable free arbitration service to allow quick justice for complainants. The old Press Complaints Commission was not really a regulatory authority. It was a complaint handling body. The new Leveson beefed up organisation would have much more power to sanction.

But there are other concerns. Leveson does not understand how the bulk of the press works. He has recommended measures to outlaw "off the record" briefings journalists have with politicians and police. He fears it's too cosy and an abuse of power. We have news for him. In the vast majority of cases there's hardly any relationship at all and that is bad for democracy. Tip offs and background briefings about issues of public interest should happen all the time. It's a way information gets out into the public domain. It's how whistle blowers flag up important issues. The cutting off of such information puts more control into the hands of the people in power who would tell you nothing. The truth is that we live in a shut-down society where real information becomes harder to access. Yesterday at an employment tribunal in Londonderry its chairman banned the press from a high profile unfair dismissal case for reasons that are unfathomable. The day before this newspaper was able to report the sex crimes of former Ireland rugby star David Tweed only after spending money to fight a court order preventing his name being published. These incidents are every week occurences yet they found no place in Leveson's narrative of an out-of-control press plundering information where and when it likes.

There are also recommendations on tightening journalistic exceptions from the Data Protection Act which would act against public interest journalism. Leveson also seems to be green lighting a rack up of damages cost against newspapers in civil cases which would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism

The Leveson hearings were curious affairs which make one wonder how the man himself could have formed an entirely accurate picture. Many witnesses from the press, who could have told of fine journalistic work across the UK, hardly had a look in. The editor of this newspaper shared a platform with three others for an afternoon of evidence. Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller seem to be given all day. No wonder the report is very light on the 99 per cent of newspapers who battle every day to deliver the best news service possible in what are trying times for all print media.

In Parliament yesterday there was an interesting divide. While David Cameron stood firm in his warnings about "crossing the rubicon" into state regulation both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg took the opposite view. While no-one would disagree with their revulsion over the abuse of press power there was a curiously illiberal tone to what the leaders of the supposedly liberal parties in the Commons said. Backing any form of state control should sit ill at ease with them but suspicions arise that a visceral hatred of the Murdoch empire and the beatings it has doled out to both may have played a part. There is also the nagging suspicion that they, together with many other commentators, share a loathing for a rumbustious, pomposity pricking Red Top press that amounts to a middle class prejudice. Is it too fanciful to detect in them a view that a "proper" newspaper should look and act like the Guardian at all times? A dull world indeed if that were the case. For we must never lose sight that the press must remain part campaigning, part rabble rousing, part educating, part entertaining but always apart from those who would rule us. It may not feel it at times like this but that role is vital. Leveson's proposals to legislate threaten that function.

We must never forget the ordeal handed out to the Dowlers and the McCanns. The vast majority of journalists were as horrified by their treatment as was the public. But Leveson's proposals would not necessarily stop such actions. Ask Louis Walsh who won an out-of-court settlement from a newspaper in the Republic this week after it reported wrongly that he was involved in a sex assault. The Republic has a form of statutory regulation not that far away from that suggested by Leveson.

What would a dictator or a despot observing from afar make of events in the UK yesterday. Might he think that if the Mother of all Parliaments would consider legislating to control the press, he should too. He would probably be accessing all this news online, a vast, unregulated, black hole of information and chaff far removed from the possible controls suggested by Lord Justice Leveson.

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