Red top reckoning: end press licence to bully and lie with impunity
Politicians, pay heed: if you bottle the post-Leveson chance to reform the nationals, heaven help British public life, warns Steven Barnett
Just as one British media firestorm subsides, another is about to erupt. In the past two weeks there have been acres of column inches and a deluge of recriminations devoted to the BBC Newsnight fiasco. Next week the spotlight will return to the nation's newspapers as Lord Justice Leveson - barring any last-minute glitches - is expected to publish his long-awaited report on the "culture, practice and ethics" of the British press.
Most national newspapers, determined to get their retaliation in first, have taken enormous pleasure in pouring salt into the BBC's self-inflicted wounds and excoriating its "culture". In fact, the broadcaster's public bloodletting and self-abasement is an essential part of its accountability to members of the public who pay the licence fee and who still - in very large numbers - place enormous faith in the accuracy of its journalism.
Now compare that very public (and justified) corporate humiliation - not to mention the fulminating editorials about collapsing journalistic standards - with the cover-ups and deliberate obfuscation when evidence of News of the World phone-hacking started to emerge several years ago. After repeated denials by the paper and industry self-regulator the Press Complaints Commission, it was only dogged persistence on the part of The Guardian's Nick Davies that eventually delivered irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing and led to the Leveson inquiry.
As a result, we were treated to some truly shocking accounts of abuse carried out in the name of journalism: malicious distortions, vindictive bullying and gross intrusions of privacy, which made a laughing stock of the PCC Code of Practice. For example, someone at the News of the World coerced Charlotte Church's mother into giving an interview about her attempted suicide by threatening to publish a second report about the singer's father's affair - and called it "journalism".
In case anyone should be distracted by the public campaigning of Church, Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and others, the vast majority of victims were not celebrity A-listers but ordinary people, such as the McCanns (parents of Madeleine), the Dowlers (parents of Milly), survivors of the 7/7 bombing and relatives of dead soldiers. MediaWise, which has for nearly 20 years campaigned for better journalism, submitted to Leveson a 60,000-word catalogue of the misery and distress suffered by ordinary people at the hands of a ruthless press that systematically stonewalled any attempt to seek redress or even apology. In the face of its paymasters' cynicism, the PCC was impotent and irrelevant.
While the vast majority of UK professions have been radically overhauled over the past 20 years, the British press stands alone as an industry without proper mechanisms of redress and accountability. Until now.
Leveson's report will almost certainly recommend a new structure which, while allowing a strong measure of continued self-regulation, requires some kind of legal underpinning to guarantee that codes of conduct are properly implemented and sanctions enforced.
Anticipation of his recommendations has already prompted a ferocious response from newspapers that are desperate for yet another "last chance" to regulate themselves. Most deliberately elide independent regulation with "state control", arguing without irony that this will be the first step on a slippery slope to state-licensed newspapers. The UK, they say, will become the next Zimbabwe or Russia, while African dictators will sleep easier in their beds. It is a disingenuous and deliberate attempt to confuse individual free speech with corporate speech.
One of the most clear-sighted and influential rebuttals has come from the eminent University of Cambridge philosopher Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve, who contrasts the proper scrutiny of a regulatory process - underpinned by statute - with explicit preclusion of interference in content. The right to publish is not under threat - just the right to bully, intimidate and lie with impunity.
Moreover, industry fears are flatly contradicted by experience of broadcast journalism in the UK and by long-standing statutes in other democratic countries such as Finland and Denmark that have long embraced, for example, a statutory right of reply. In the UK, both the BBC and Channel 4 - each in their own ways subject to statutory regulation - invest in journalism that holds governments, public authorities, corporations and powerful individuals to account. And it was ITV, lest we forget, that actually broke the Savile story.
In January, it will be exactly 20 years since the Calcutt committee - set up in the wake of serious press abuse in the 1980s - reported to John Major's government that the PCC was ineffective and recommended some statutory oversight. But a weak and vulnerable government had no stomach for taking on the press. If this government ignores Leveson, we can be absolutely certain that within five years, the cycle of misery and abuse will be repeated. Our politicians now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work together to change the face of British public life. If they bottle it again, the newspaper editors and proprietors who have bullied, harassed and victimised unchecked for the past two decades really will be untouchable.
Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster and author of The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism (2011).