Fine for Leveson

Leveson

Leveson, wrong, wrong and then wrong again

The press were fascinated by Leveson today but the public were interested in the simultaneous event going on in court where SAS soldier Danny Nightingale was released – after a press campaign to free him. Hurrah for the press.

Leveson did not ask for examples of good journalism, only bad, so that’s all he got. The Leveson report is an example of biased research and reporting. A statutory regulator would fine him and demand a right of reply.

Leveson’s report

Leveson has plumped for self regulation of the press, possibly – possibly  – backed by statute at some time in the future – a model proposed by the National Union of Journalists – but not in my name. The NUJ must hang its head in shame. It would be a disaster for the industry and the union.

The NUJ should be opposed to all regulation of the media – and would be had it consulted its members. Thankfully it looks as if the issue may be kicked into the long grass. But we need to get our act together for any backlash. Here’s why The NUJ got it wrong.

The NUJ demanded a statutory body with “the authority and ability to regulate all commercially-driven press” that is “backed by the ability to impose sanctions, such as fines”. That’s Draconian and scary. Leveson backed that, if self-regulation fails, with OfCom as the regulator of choice.

Let’s dispel a few myths:

Leveson was the most important thing to happen to the British Press

Most of us thought it was a sideshow. It was irrelevant to the vast majority of the population. More importantly, it was irrelevant to the vast majority of UK journalists and – specifically – members of the NUJ.

Leveson was about a few thousand Fleet Street journalists. Actually, it was probably about a few hundred tabloid journalists. And really it was about a tiny band of journalists. But Leveson missed this point, and so did the NUJ.

If you take all the NUJ members working in the national press it probably totals fewer than 2,000, most of whom have never done any unethical reporting. The NUJ should have said this – loud.

But the NUJ claims 33,000 working journalists as members. The vast majority of those have no dealing with press regulation or with the PCC – not because they ignore it but because nothing they do causes any issues.

Leveson was not about the world of B2B magazines in which I spent most of my working life. Nor was it about the new world of internet-only outlets in which I have predominantly worked for the past few years. And I am not alone in having had nothing to with Leveson because it seemed irrelevant.

That was, I now realise, a mistake, as my union foolishly proposed a regulatory regime that could have impinged on those of us who do not need it and have done nothing to deserve it.

Leveson has been about high-profile cases. But the scandals over the BBC and ITV both paying substantial damages to Lord McAlpine, despite both being heavily regulated by OfCom, shows that regulation will have no impact on the quality of the journalism. But it may impact on the content

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Victims of press intrusion need protection

No they don’t. And I speak as someone whose family was subject to the death knock and to intrusive long lens photography – actually the worst of it by the BBC, which is already heavily regulated by OfCom.

We have harassment laws. We have laws against phone hacking. We have laws of trespass. We do not need any more.

In any balance between privacy and the freedom of the press the freedom of the press must win. If we pass a law to protect innocent victims of media intrusion we also protect the guilty who deserve to be investigated, hounded and exposed.

The current round of child abuse scandals involving former senior entertainers suggests there was far too little scrutiny of celebrities’ private lives, not too much. Nobody should listen to Hugh Grant on the issue of media regulation.

It will be a shame Milly Dowler’s family are unhappy but few victims ever “turn the other cheek” instead seeking revenge and retribution.

If we let victims set the law of the land we’d have hanging and flogging, corporal punishment and a return of the stocks. We don’t, because we realise recent victims are not neutral and objective and so are not the right people to decide, or at least not in the right frame of mind then to decide.

In order to allow press scrutiny we have to accept some scrutiny will turn out to be undeserved. To stop scrutiny because of some innocent people get scrutinised lets those off who should be scrutinised.

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The public distrusts the press

Survey after survey tells us this, but partly that’s the way they ask the questions. In the same way Leveson ignored the vast majority of honest journalists working outside the tabloid media, so do surveys and questionnaires.

Ask people if they trust “the press” and they answer no. Ask then what they read and do they trust it, and you get more moderate answers. Ask them if they trust the specialist magazines they read at work and they generally do. Ask them if they trust specialist hobby magazines they buy and they do.

Ask people what percentage of “the press” they think is accurate is and they may well say 20%-30%, but ask them to identify every article or publication they have read in the past month and what percentage of each they trusted and you’d get a higher figure.

A survey asking “how much do you trust the press” is like your doctor asking “how much do you drink”. We all lie it is less than it really is.

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An underpinning statute does not mean statutory

According to Oxford – the publishing company behind a range of dictionaries from pocket sized to the many volumed Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of the word statutory is: “required, permitted, or enacted by statute” (new window).

So a regulatory system enacted by statute, as proposed by the NUJ, is statutory. Even Lord Leveson tried to play with words and pretend regulation through statute was not statutory regulation. It is.

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The honourable intention of the statute means it’s OK

Here’s a law I do believe in: the law of unintended consequences. In the March 2006 budget the government introduced a tax relief for those making films in the UK. They called it Film Tax Relief. The intention was clear.

But now the likes of Disney sell films to wealthy individuals and lease them back. This enables the wealthy Brits to get tax relief on their investment – money on which they should have paid the 50% higher rate tax. It gets worse: the millionaires qualify for tax rebates on their accounting losses.

So as a result of a perfectly sound intention, millionaires don’t just fail to pay any tax, they get tax rebates from HM Treasury.

Even if there are honest intentions among the proposers of statutory regulation and the lawmakers who enact it, there are likely to be unintended consequences.

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A statute is not the thin end of the wedge

Sorry but it is. Once you have legislation on the statute book it becomes very easy to reinterpret it, alter it, widen its scope, pass secondary legislation and use it for purposes the original proposers could not have imagined.

That is how laws change, how people get caught out, how things that were OK yesterday become illegal today or how penalties for the same offence get increased.

Here’s a recent example: on 22 November this year the transport department issued a press release entitled: “Tough new measures to tackle drink drivers” (new window).

Nowhere in the release did it mention, among other things, that anyone speeding at 100 mph on a motorway would have to take a new, tougher driving test before getting their licence back – nothing to do with drink driving. Even accumulated points would require a revised driving test.

If you followed the link to the consultation you discovered it was called: “Enforcement procedures against drink drivers and other offenders”.

And only if you clicked a third time to the actual pdf of the consultation document did you get the subtitle: “Proposed Changes in Legislation for Testing Procedures for Drink and Drug Driving and in Other Transport Sectors and for Remedial Training for Road Traffic Offenders”.

The changes would involve no new legislation as the powers already exist (in sections 34 and 37 of the Road Safety Act 2006, if you’re interested).

So, back to statutory press regulation: It is completely credible to suggest that many years after any initial legislation, the fact that it is on the statute book could allow a future government to alter the existing practice and toughen up the regulation of the press – very easily.

The fact that this has not, yet, happened in Ireland in the few years that there has been a statute-based system is no guarantee of anything.

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