Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Monday 18 March 2013

You eat it.

OBJECTIVITY is something that comes only with knowledge.

A hack like me learns it when you meet people and they’re not what you expect. You learn when you interview one victim and want to write their tears away, and when you interview the next and want to slap them for being so thick.

Each doorstep you knock, each person you speak to, teaches you what you thought they couldn’t. You have to adjust every time.

So today I’m going to use 18 years of living like that to look at my trade. There’s a major vote in the House of Commons about the first Press law for 318 years, there’s been months of wrangling, lots of accusations, and a big fat inquiry.

It has to be looked at, but whenever journalists look at themselves they are accused of bias. This is fair enough, but everyone is biased. The only thing that sets us apart is the lives we spend putting our own prejudices aside in order to show you someone else’s.

So here we go. If you think anything that follows is opinion rather than bare logic, pipe up.

A free Press is a good thing.

Ours has been free since newspaper licensing ended in 1695, and Fleet Street was born seven years later when the Daily Courant was first printed in a room above the White Hart pub.

That model – of a ribald, mischievous, privately-owned, opinionated and puckish organisation which spent a lot of its time in pubs – has spread around the world. Today Fleet Street diaspora delve, dismay and get drunk in the name of news from Rio to Rotterdam, from Accra to Angkor Wat.

In Cambodia, a land where journalists and people who looked like they might be journalists were killed by the government as recently as 1987, there is, at the moment, no Press law at all.

That means that journalists in this country – from front-line drones all the way up to media moguls – have a responsibility not just to their colleagues and readers here, but billions more around the world.

It also means that if the recent phone-hacking scandal turns out to be true – and nobody has yet been convicted of the crimes we have already accepted as fact – those responsible will have damaged journalism all over the world.

Today the three main political parties, not one of whom won enough votes at the last election to form a government, have hammered out a deal for system of regulation of our newspapers tougher than ever before.

And we have a lot of laws regulating what our newspapers do. After licensing was revoked there were plenty of other rules to follow, including defamation, copyright, contempt of court, common law, civil laws about things like trespass, trial witnesses who cannot be named, and trying to work out when a joke becomes hate speech.

I spent a two-year indentured training scheme learning all that, and the years since trying to stay updated.

The Press has had a regulator since 1953, after a Royal Commission was set up to consider complaints about newspaper monopolies and factual inaccuracies. It led to the formation of the General Council of the Press, funded by the industry and arbitrating disputes.

In the 1960s it was revamped, and in the 1980s there were more complaints about newspaper monopolies and factual inaccuracies. Rupert Murdoch was causing consternation, and he was launching BSkyB into every home in the land.

Then playwright Alan Bennett stood up at the funeral of his friend Russell Harty, who’d been outed as gay by The Sun and on his deathbed endured reporters posing as doctors as they tried to find out if he had AIDS, which he didn’t.

Bennett accused the paper of hounding one of the nation’s favourite TV stars to his grave. We had another inquiry, then the Press Complaints Commission and a new code of conduct.

Outing went out-of-bounds, as did going into hospitals and accessing medical records.

In fact there are so many laws and regulations for journalists today that there was not one complaint aired at our latest Press inquiry which wasn’t covered by one of them.

The problem was that firstly those laws were allegedly broken, secondly that nobody bothered to do anything about it, and thirdly that it was difficult to call anyone to account.

And those problems can all be solved - by the laws being properly enforced and making them cheap and accessible to all.

In 2002 News of the World reporters told Surrey Police they’d hacked Milly Dowler’s voicemail. (Say what you like about the Screws, they were usually first with the story). The police didn’t arrest anyone, investigate, or so far as we know even have a word with the editor.

Then we have defamation, a law which goes back to the 12th century and is something only the rich like Lord McAlpine can afford to invoke if they are accused of something they didn’t do.

If I was named a paedophile as he was, there’s very little I could do about it. Even if I found a lawyer prepared to bear the costs in expectation of getting the bill settled by the eventual damages, it could take years to get to court.

There is a libel reform bill going through Parliament about to change all that. It’s taken three years to get there, and would make a massive difference to how newspapers deal with ‘ordinary’ people, as well as protecting scientific debate.

A couple of weeks ago supporters of stricter Press control added an amendment to it which had not been debated or discussed at any point in the bill’s passage through Parliament.
The amendment, had it gone on to the statute book, would be undemocratic for that alone. But it also called for publishers who were not part of the PCC and were sued for defamation to pay all the legal costs of both sides whether they won or not.

It would have meant a newspaper could be sued, and financially ruined, for printing the truth.

In order to get that amendment ripped out and let the libel reform bill pass our political leaders have been in talks to agree a system of Press regulation.

They have hit upon the idea of regulating a 21st century media publishing in print and online using a medieval device invented before movable type called a Royal Charter. It is overseen by former and current government ministers, and an unelected monarch.

Charters were invented to approve things, not regulate them. This one looks likely to be protected from future interference by law unless a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons wants to interfere.

Cast your mind back to the expenses scandal. Can you imagine a two-thirds majority?

Each of the parties have claimed this deal as a victory, and no-one has used the phrase ‘dog’s breakfast’.

Nor have they made much of the fact that what the charter is overseeing is a new PCC designed, like all our other regulators, by editors and funded by industry.

It’s tougher than the last one because rather than just making a newspaper print an apology it can also impose fines of up to £1m. That’s a very powerful deterrent.

For example if The Guardian were to wrongly report something like ‘The News of the World deleted Milly Dowler’s voicemails’ when they didn’t, and it cost hundreds of innocent people their jobs, they couldn't get away with a small online correction and Alan Rusbridger might have to write a cheque to Rupert Murdoch.

That would be interesting. And what’s more, it was going to happen without any new laws.

The new regulations will apply only to significant publishers of ‘news-related material’. It’s aimed at newspapers, but it will take in small magazines like the Spectator and Private Eye, individual bloggers, and I’ll be very surprised if it isn’t used one day against someone on Twitter with more than a few thousand followers who tells people something they didn’t know.

When journalists talk about Press freedom we are accused of defending ourselves but we are also defending you. There are 62.6million people in this country, and 20 to 30million of them read a mass-market newspaper every day. If we successfully defend the rights of the Press, we defend the rights of our readers and our non-readers too.

If a newspaper cannot ask a question, nor can you. If a newspaper cannot say something, nor can you. If a newspaper cannot take a picture of Hugh Grant in a public place with his new girlfriend, then when you take a picture and tweet it for a laugh you’re in the same pickle if he wants to come and find you.

Those rules on defamation, contempt, naming sex abuse victims all apply to Twitter, Facebook, and email. Every one of us with access to those things is a publisher now – and there’s no training if you’re not a journalist.

And we are, right now, in a place where a scandal born of public distaste for gossip and tittle-tattle has led us to a situation where all that’s safe to report is gossip and tittle-tattle as found on Twitter, as released by public relations officers, as approved of by government.

We are not short of laws. What we are short of is objectivity – the ability to put yourself aside when considering a problem.

If these Press furores happen on a twenty-year cycle, the cycle needs breaking. We need something new.

We need a Press regulator where editors aren’t welcome. Its members should be made up of ordinary members of the public, because I trust them more than I do anyone in Westminster. Alongside them, for expertise, should be a smaller number of ordinary journalists – hacks, snappers, subs, local and national – who know the ground and have the experience and wit to know what’s fair and what’s beyond the pale.

No Establishment figures, no appointees, no editors.

We're already getting big fines and libel reform, but we also need a First Amendment-style right to freedom of expression carved in stone right in the heart of our laws. That’s the only way to protect bloggers, citizens, debate, and difference.

Because without it we have anyone who deals in a loose definition of ‘news’ – and that could one day come down to something as simple as sharing a Facebook status – facing serious persecution.

Yesterday the deputy leader of the Opposition said: “There are a lot of things that can turn people’s lives upside down and are not criminal offences and that’s what we need to ensure we protect people from.”

So – in a country packed with potential crimes, at a time when everyone with a smart phone is a publisher, under threat of £1m fines and the Queen coming round to tell you off, we now want to legislate against things that aren’t criminal?

Objectively speaking, that sounds like you’re forcing me to eat a dog’s breakfast after it’s already been sicked up three times.

Objectively speaking, that sounds a bit like the Khmer Rouge.

And objectively speaking it sounds like a good idea for journalists to gravitate online, become anonymous, and be entirely unaccountable - which I could have sworn was not what anyone wants.

But then if you don’t know more than one thing you can’t be objective. If you don’t read Tony Blair praising the Iraq War in The Sun today as well as Colonel Tim Collins in the Daily Mirror saying what a disaster it was you can’t hope to have an informed opinion.

Objectively speaking, I don’t mind what I write being controlled by law, so long as the law guarantees that I can otherwise write what I like.

We’ve only got one law for that. It’s the Human Rights Act 1998, Article 10.

And the government wants to repeal it.

What could possibly go wrong?