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

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?


30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Its volountary until you wish to abstain from it and then it mysteriously become compulsory

pirate said...

Science has "OBJECTIVITY" papers don't as this article proves.

Anonymous said...

As long as journalists think that it's okay to break the rules and the law if they consider the 'story' is important enough the any form of 'self regulation' needs to be not only compulsory, but also underpinned by legislation. If there are already enough laws, it's a fact that sometimes hacks think they don't matter and they have repeatedly been ignored in the past.

That doesn't restrict the freedom of the press to publish, just ensure that they, like every other citizen, have to work within the law. Even the Police can't ignore the law if a case is to get to court, so hacks shouldn't be any different for a story. They may have to work harder to get it, but if it needed to break the law to get written it shouldn't be allowed to be published.

Anonymous said...

If you didn't want tighter press controls, you shouldn't have abused your power and broken the law by hacking, amongst others, a dead girl's phone.

Ben Lewis said...

Brilliant. Not seen it summed up so well.
Love reading your columns, even though I often heartily disagree. Which is kind of the point really isn't it?

Mick Anderson said...

So, there is a raft of laws already in place that make things that people have been accused of doing illegal. The only reason to add another law is so the politicians can be seen to have done "something" for the "victims".

How often in recent times has adding an extra law made things better? (Rhetorical) The best we can hope for is that a new law doesn't make things worse, and I rather suspect that (at least in the longer term) this will have some rather unfortunate unintended consequences.

Anonymous said...

This whole apocalyptic end-of-free-speech shtick is just self-serving scaremongering hogwash. There will still be public-interest defence. Papers will still be fine if they print the truth or, if they make a mistake, print a correction in the same place they published the original error/untruth/libel. That is the case in Germany and the press still manage to exposed scandals that force politicians to resign. Too many journalists like to talk up their status as defenders of liberty and righters of great wrongs while ignoring the fact that elements of the British press have become an unchecked anti-democratic force, blackmailing politicians in the interests of a moneyed few, suborning police officers and doing as they like with ordinary people without the means to defend themselves. You have brought this plague upon your own house.

Foxy said...

Science gets sued under our current libel laws too. Shit, isn't it?

Foxy said...

Nothing written above disagrees with you. As I pointed out, anyone guilty of phone hacking has damaged journalism all over the world. It's a bad thing.

Foxy said...

I didn't.

Foxy said...

There is no public interest defence to most laws.

Current libel proposals are that printing the truth could still lead you to pay all the punitive legal costs.

I've never had the plague, thanks.

visceral said...

I'm afraid you are mistaken if you truly beleive Science is objective ..

Anonymous said...

Will a body run by editors and journos ever really dish out a £1 million fine to their pals on other papers? It seems incredibly unlikely. And a poky apology on page 52 doesn't make up for a falsity on the front page.

Dragging all Twitter users into this is a bit cynical. Yes maybe someday it will affect EVERY ONE OF US AND OUR POOR GRANDCHILDREN TOO but equally, maybe it won't. You don't know and have no way of guessing.

I don't like the way journos are framing this in a "we fought for this in WW2" business - yes freedom of speech was fought for, but then many journos made a mockery of it which is why we're here.

Ultimately though, if the police did their job properly we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.

SoupWaiter said...

the controls aren't aimed at you personally

Paul said...

Wow. You have repeated the Guardian story fallacy, the same day as Trevor Kavanagh. It is not known how the messages were deleted, it is a mystery. However, whilst the finger of blame can not be directly pointed at News International, circumstances and details of the incidents suggest that they cannot be ruled out as a causal factor.

The Guardian got the story from Scotland Yard, Surrey police, and the Dowler family. The repetition of this story with all its unabashed moral outrage suggests that the newspaper has been unequivocally excluded as the source of the deletions. It has not. You're supposed to be a journalist, try doing some research.

Rengox said...

See that's what is so frustrating! Foxy makes an intelligent, well thought out argument and someone instantly says "Hacked a dead girls phone" That's not a reasoned debate now is it?

Paul said...

Hey, anonymous, isn't this the whole point? Journalists broke the law and weren't prosecuted. Surely the solution to that problem is to apply the law you have properly before deciding whether you need new ones. Therefore it's the culture of police and prosecutors that needs to change. Also of course the affordability of libel action to ordinary people. In this case, it's the libel laws that need changing. Look at recent Bad journalism gets away with it because people can't afford to sue, and they know this.

Paul said...

Who buys the papers that do this stuff? I didn't notice the public caring too much while they read the stories in the first place. Did no-one think hang on, we shouldn't know these things about these people? Or, hang on, how did they find that out? Don't forget it was a journalist (Nick Davies) who brought a lot of this to our attention. Imagine if teh rich owners of the papers he was writing about were able to complain about him as soon as he started, knowing that his paper could be bankrupted by paying legal costs even when he turned out to be right (which I get the impression is what's about to happen, although I'd love to be wrong about that).

Anonymous said...

I've been a news journalist in newspapers, broadcasting and internet for more than 30 years. But I think I'm one of the few who openly welcomes press reform. It's true that the papers do an awful lot of valuable work, but the fact is that most have brought this on themselves. How? Through a combination of sheer recklesnness, arrogance, the political free pass they've been handed by governments of all colours for decades, stupidity, malice, proprietorial greed, and in some cases gross inhumanity. Sure, these are all failings in every trade, but journalists seem to imagine that, uniquely, we should be free from effective regulation and sanction. Yes, there are existing rules, but none of them have been strong enough to stop the worst abuses. I'm proud to be a journalist, and the vast majority of people I've worked with down the years have been decent and admirable. But too many of us bring shame to the job. Public interest journalism will continue to thrive; so will gossip and tittle-tattle (and I enjoy both just as much as the next hack). Rotten, pointlessly prurient and hurtful journalism will continue too: but, hopefully, now there will be a meaningful way of addressing it.

Anonymous said...

Good to see we can comment as anonymous at least.

Very nicely written, but words are your trade after all.
You dug this awful hole for yourselves a few decades ago. You promised us you would be objectively self-regulating, and you weren't; and got worse and worse as the years went by.

Now how are you going to undo the damage this form of censorship is going to do to us.
The law always allows you to break it, there is just an agreed price you have to pay.
So I would like to see a few journalists and editors defy the charter or the law, print the full truth about some issue, and take the jail time.
Then we might respect you a bit more.

Anonymous said...

There is always a twat who says science is objective when clearly it isn't given you have to have an opinion in the first place and then go and prove it

Emma said...

Great article as usual! I have a conundrum. With some friends, I am setting up an independent 6th form newspaper for Brighton and Hove. As far as I understand, as we will be a website and publishing news, we will be open to regulation. Am I right? It seems a little pathetic.

Matt Wardman said...

@pirate

You seem to have an overoptimistic view of "Science".

Science is done by scientists, who are as human, and as driven by jealously, self-promotion, opinion, petty squabbles, and all the rest, as are all of us.

Anonymous said...

while the industry declines and former colleagues take a "package" and go the internet runs on. going to be interesting trying to track down a blogger who appears to be in north korea or somalia from their IP "apparent" address. as usual a bunch of idiots who would need to double their intelligence to be half wits come up with an unworkable scheme. newspapers have enough problems and this is just going to drive things online even faster.

Anonymous said...

(new Anon - JK) As non media person I would note that the man major stories that has been of vital public interest had to break laws. Daily Mail were in contempt of court when they accused the 5 people arrested and released relating to the Stephen Lawrence murder. The Telegraph broke data protection rules amongst others in printing MP's expenses. The Commons tried stopping the DT. On other hand, two papers were fined in contempt of court when they named Mr Jefferies as a murder suspect. For me, the punishment was not enough. I liked Foxy's comment re the Guardian having to pay RM. It is a valid point. In their rush to condemn the appalling actions against the Screws, they made other allegations that were simply not true. The allegation of deleting messages was reported as saying it could have resulted in evidence been deleted. This was the straw that broke the camel back that sealed the fate of the Screws. It may have gone at a later date but it shows that many other papers could find themselves in trouble.

Minuteman said...

Great article as always. Feel sorry for the Queen because she basically has to sign off on Royal Charters no matter what she may think personally and I bet if our descendants were allowed to read her diary in a hundred years from now it would say something like......... I have enjoyed my reign but I have had to put up with my fair share of wankers running the country!

Anonymous said...

Where's Nick Davies now ? Would be very interesting to hear his take on Fernbridge, but he writes for the Guardian and they're not reporting it (even though they are well informed.)What's that all about ?

Anonymous said...

i'd agree with that! I wont be gagged and prison holds no fears for me, so hacks should have the bottle to print anyway

Anonymous said...

It's quite ironic that you censor/approve peoples comments!

Foxy said...

The owner of a website has legal responsibility for defamatory comments you might post on it. If you might get sued, you'd check them first too. And it's kind of ironic you don't put your name to it, don't you think?

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