I have written to my MP, Joan Ruddock, asking for her support for press freedom against proposals for legislation to introduce a regulator. The text is below:
Dear Ms Ruddock
Please do not vote for any legislation to establish a regulator of the press. There has been a long-established principle that the state should not intervene in the freedom of the press and this remains important.
Please stick to principles. Please do not vote for statutory regulation (or regulation with a statutory backstop) just because the Labour Party is in opposition and wants to give the government a bloody nose (as it did recently over the zero budget increase for Europe). This is too important for yah-boo politics.
I have been a journalist for 25 years, predominantly in magazines and more recently in online journalism, though I have written for most of the broadsheets and the Standard and the Mail. At no point have I ever been subject to a complaint to the PCC or anybody else. I have always behaved entirely ethically. I have never phone-hacked anyone. Even when I did a series of celebrity interviews, if the celebrity did not want to talk I found another who did. I have, on the other hand, provided readers with useful information. I have uncovered the stories “someone, somewhere doesn’t want published” and I have campaigned for, and helped readers get, redress from government departments and private companies alike.
I am not unusual. The vast majority of British journalists are upstanding members of our trade and of society. The action of a handful of journalists who are being prosecuted under existing laws gives no cause for statutory regulation of the whole of the British press.
Leveson got it wrong. Partly this may have been because people like me thought it was nothing to do with us – a sideshow about the few bad apples. That also meant my union – the National Union of Journalists – failed to consult its members. I regret that.
But partly Leveson got it wrong because he was partial and biased from the outset. Leveson did not ask for examples of good journalism, only bad, so that’s all he got (it was why I did not respond). The Leveson report is an example of biased research and reporting. A statutory regulator would fine him and demand a right of reply.
Despite that he provided examples of the good journalism I am praising. He said local papers were “Much valued and important” and he said “local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy”.
The full quotes are: “The Government should look urgently as what action it might be able take to help safeguard the ongoing viability of this much valued and important part of the British press. It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role.”
“I should also, perhaps, make it clear that the regulatory model proposed later in this Report should not provide an added burden to the regional and local press.”
On magazines Leveson described them as a “trusted friend” and said they were “not engaged in the sort of news and current affairs reporting, or reporting on individuals, with which the Inquiry is primarily concerned”.
The full quotes are: “Most of these consumer magazines are specialist interest titles of varying sorts and are not engaged in the sort of news and current affairs reporting, or reporting on individuals, with which the Inquiry is primarily concerned.”
“Whereas newspapers are essentially ephemeral, and understandably have developed a reputation as tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers, magazines are kept and referred to because they are considered to be a ‘trusted friend’.”
Despite this he has demanded they all be regulated. He devoted just 456 words to magazines, my sector for most of my working life, and then went on to look in detail at three completely unrepresentative magazines – OK, Heat and Hello.
Let me tell you about the magazine I news edited on maternity cover this year to demonstrate the contrast. I did ten months on the insurance industry business-to-business title called Post Magazine. Its name comes from the fact that it was the first ever magazine sent by penny post. It has been published weekly since 1840. Post Magazine did not need regulating in 1840 and does not need regulating now. Leveson’s report talks of 4,765 other B2B magazines. They do not need regulating. They and the vast majority of the British press are doing a fantastic job with little or no cause for concern.
His real target was a few national newspapers. He said that if a single national newspaper did not join the voluntary system then statutory regulation would be required.
He said: “A backstop regulator would only be required if either the whole of the press industry had failed to accept the principle of independent regulation and thus failed to organise an independent body meeting the proposed statutory requirements or a significant proportion of the press (and, in particular, any of the national press) had refused to engage with an independent regulator.”
Lord Leveson’s report identifies several areas of the press that have no need for regulation and yet he goes on to say that those with no need for regulation and, therefore no incentive to join a regulatory system, could be the cause of statutory regulation.
He said: “If the possibility exists that a significant provider of press like services could avoid independent regulation without consequence, then there would simply be no incentive for an unwilling industry collectively to deliver it. My personal view, therefore, is that there may be a need for the realistic prospect of a backstop regulator being established.”
His thinking is wrong. There are a tiny number of journalists who have broken existing laws and will be dealt with under those laws. To use the behaviour of a tiny minority to bring in draconian legislation establishing a regulator over the whole press with the legal ability to levy fines and take other punitive action is plain wrong.
It is the thin end of the wedge. Once legislation is on the statute books it can, in the future, be amended and altered and tweaked and reinterpreted and used for purposes for which those passing it had no intention. The freedom of the press is far too important to risk this over a few rogues who are being dealt with already under existing laws.
There are many more reasons why Leveson got it wrong and why the freedom of the press must be maintained, some of which I have written about on my blog (http://www.chriswheal.com/fine-for-leveson/). I would welcome the chance to put these and other reasons to you. But please use your position to oppose calls for legislation on press regulation and use your influence to get these issues debated fully.