In a new book about the Press and its coverage of crime, Nottingham Law School’s Dr Samantha Pegg, along with fellow academics Dr Judith Rowbotham and Professor Kim Stevenson, argue that existing laws – rather than any new system of Parliament-inspired regulation – should be used to control newspapers that overstep the mark
When it comes to newspaper reporting, exactly what constitutes the public interest? How justified is it, in the public interest, that ultimately, press freedom be managed (as all three political parties have recently agreed) by politicians?
Equally, what do we mean by freedom of the press and to what extent can, and should, such press freedom be validated by the public interest? How can we reconcile the desire to inform, sometimes at all costs, with genuine public responsibility?
On the one hand, many of us have felt increasingly outraged by press intrusions into the privacy not of celebrities (there is a long tradition of feeling that being “celebrated” means giving up privacy to a considerable extent because we are “interested” in such figures) but of private individuals whose media importance relates to some other story – usually linked in some way to a crime story.
On the other hand, there is a very long tradition of believing that (as The Times put it), one of the most important roles of a free press relies on it having the capacity to hold the political system as well as individual politicians to account. How can the Press do this if that political system has the power to censor and control what it publishes?
This is the background to current debates about the proposed Royal Charter on Press Regulation – and also, to the history of how the charter has come about. It has been pretty common knowledge for the past decade that journalists had taken advantage of modern technology by “hacking” not just into individual emails and websites but also mobile phone voicemail boxes.
But (apart from the Guardian) society was not really worried about it until the trial of Levi Bellfield, who killed teenager Milly Dowler. The media itself presented the idea that Bellfield might have got off thanks to the fall-out from the phone-hacking activity of an “enterprising” investigative journalist.
The resultant public outrage was huge, especially as more stories emerged suggesting that this was not an isolated case and that other, “ordinary” men and women, involuntarily and unfortunately involved in crime stories, had found themselves subjected to unwarranted intrusion.
The consequence was the Leveson Inquiry (which, arguably, lost sight of its original brief to investigate the impact of poor practices in investigative journalism on the criminal justice process, and links to bodies such as the police).
Did Leveson’s Report (at least implicitly) recommend the current version of the Royal Charter? He declared that: “What is required is independent self-regulation.”
Reining in the excesses of the press while maintaining its freedom was always going to require compromise, and, to date, there has been no real meeting of minds. The advertised stance of the legislature is that they have achieved a compromise which takes note of the key concerns of the newspaper industry.
But while there is broad consensus that a new regulatory body needs to be established (not a merely cosmetic overhaul as when the Press Council became the Press Complaints Commission in 1990), the devil is in the detail. Despite the claims of compromise, the Charter contains a key provision which is identified by the newspaper industry as amounting to a return to state licensing of newspapers: something fought against from the start (consider John Milton’s Areopagitica, his speech to Parliament opposing licensing and censorship in 1644).
As a result of writing Crime News in Modern Britain: Press Reporting and Responsibility 1820-2010, we find ourselves on the side of the press in this aspect of the fight.
Political interference is a hindrance to press freedom – and allowing a change to the mandate of the Royal Charter by a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament does bring with it the potential for political interference. We agree there is no current intention: only the historically-uninformed would try to pretend that it could not happen in the future.
As we have argued, more than the broadcast media, it has been print journalism, using the authority and permanence of the written word, which has campaigned most vigorously for changes to “bad” laws or for new laws to fill “gaps” in existing legislation.
Such pressure has played a major part in making governments feel compelled to preside over the enactment of apparently electorate-friendly legislation which has been rushed through the parliamentary process.
There needs to be a greater restraint shown by the press in regulating the potential excesses of investigative journalism, but history shows that it is possible to achieve this without political licensing. By concentrating on deterrence and damages, both the press and the government have ducked a central issue – how standards of journalism could and should be enhanced, including in areas largely glossed over by Leveson such as its relations with one key element in the criminal justice system: the police force.
This is perhaps most relevant in the arena of crime news, that staple attraction of newspapers. The history of crime reportage can provide some useful insights which could provide better strategies for improving investigative journalism.
Guy Bartholomew’s Daily Mirror of the 1930s prided itself on exciting headlines and the 19th century News of the World was as dramatic as its modern incarnation. When journalists and editors overstepped the mark contempt of court proceedings have historically controlled such excess. Should we not be exploring that, rather than political licensing?
Dr Samantha Pegg,
Senior lecturer, Nottingham Law School,
Dr Judith Rowbotham and Professor Kim Stevenson
Crime News in Modern Britain. Press Reporting and Responsibility 1820-2010, by Judith Rowbotham, Kim Stevenson and Samantha Pegg, with a preface by Joshua Rozenberg (Palgrave Macmillan, published October 2013).