Sunday, 2 December 2012

A free, fair, independent regulation of press ethics.

It was obvious when the Leveson enquiry was set up that the recommendations would most likely include a statutory element.  Mr Cameron is therefore being disingenuous in now decrying that element in shock horror terms as a step too far.  He had, after all, indicated he would accept the Leveson proposals. Why set up an enquiry, looking in depth at what went wrong and why, only to distance the government from the conclusions? What is needed now is common sense, not hysterical outbursts about 'press freedom'; freedom has never meant the liberty to hurt others without good cause. It also misrepresents Leveson's proposals for statutory backing.

Leveson does not propose a process for state interference in the workings of the press. He simply suggests that to give teeth to an independent regulatory body it should have support in law. Charities, for example have statutory backing in law but whilst the Charity Commission monitors their activities to ensure ethics and legality it does not interfere with decision making. So what has Leveson proposed?

From an ethical perspective Leveson specifically rejects the idea that unethical press practice were the aberrations committed by rogue journalists. On the contrary, he finds that they were the result or part of a widespread culture. He also concludes that the Press Complaints Commission has signally failed to deal with this culture. The Press has signally failed to regulate itself. He goes further. The PCC he concludes has been part of the problem. It has 'proved itself to be aligned with the interests of the press.'.  There is, thus, a need for an independent body. What is needed he concludes is a "genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation". Independence here means independent from both the press itself and the state. But it is the press who must come sign up to a sustainable and workable ethical code of practice. The appointment of the Chair and members of the body must not be press placemen; they must be truly independent. The press cannot be their masters by appointing them. They should be appointed through a fair and open process.

You might say, well what then is the need for anything else. Leveson concludes that this regulatory body should be underpinned by legislation. This would not set up a body to 'regulate the press'. But it would make compliance with the ethical process a legal requirement. It would give no right to Parliament to interfere in the workings of the press. Indeed it would establish a clear separation of government and the press. If we had a written constitution as in the USA, for example, we no doubt would write into it such a statute to ensure freedom of the press. It would, however, give teeth to the independent regulatory body. This is essential for public confidence in the process and to prevent such a body becoming a poodle of powerful press interests.

To suggest this is a slippery slope to state interference and the erosion of press freedom is ridiculous. There is no doubt that a slipperier slope is a failed regulatory system. The press have created that slippery slope by their unethical culture. Calling a halt to this; having a free and fair, a truly independent regulatory process fostering and monitoring ethical principles in practice is the best way of ensuring we don't slide further down that slope.


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