Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

Stricter regulation: This is medicine we have to take, and we are the worst kind of hypocrites if we don’t

The Hacked Off campaign has come in for criticism from journalists who fear that it is a means for celebrities to stop their dirty linen being aired in public. Here chief executive of the group Brian Cathcart (pictured above) insists that journalists have nothing to fear from Leveson.

It would be strange to find a body of people who looked forward to stricter regulation: it usually means more checks, more questions and possibly more bureaucracy. The job gets a bit harder, and who wants that?

The prospect for journalists is all the more challenging because the change is proposed at the end of some very bruising years for the reputation of the trade, and at the end of an inquiry that dragged heaps of dirty linen into the open. There is also a sense in the air that this is a turning point, after which journalism will never be quite the same again. It’s hardly surprising that some journalists are suspicious. But they should not be, and here are three reasons.

The first is that this is medicine we have to take, and we are the worst kind of hypocrites if we don’t. If Leveson proved anything it is that journalism has big problems that are frequently causing unacceptable damage to innocent people. If that were happening in banks, public services, railways or the food industry, journalists would be the first to demand change, and not cosmetic change but change that delivered real confidence that what was wrong had been fixed and fixed for good.

We can’t, as a profession or trade, turn around now and say we’re so special that we have to be immune from the consequences of wrongdoing in our ranks. Doctors and MPs could claim to be special: do we let them off the hook? No.

Nor can we use the excuse that this was all about one rogue reporter or one rogue company. Motorman involved a dozen papers in illegal activity. A dozen at least were involved in the McCann disgraces. Almost all the papers concealed the scandal that was the PCC, and almost all attempted to cover up phone-hacking by not reporting the unfolding scandal.

It’s true that the overwhelming majority of journalists have done nothing wrong. But the same was true in banks, in hospitals, in the police and in social work: journalists, acting in the public interest, have demanded tighter regulation for all of these, and we have given short shrift to the excuses offered. Are we really now refusing the medicine we have doled out to others?

The second reason journalists should not fear Leveson is that there is no evidence he wants to harm or punish us, or to get in our way. On the contrary, his terms of reference actually oblige him to ensure that the new regulatory regime ‘supports the integrity and freedom of the press’. And he wants to do that: he never ceased in the public hearings to say he believed in free expression and recognised the vital role of journalism in society.

The challenge to Leveson, in fact, is to find an effective and lasting way to bear down on journalism that is reckless, dishonest and cruel – the stuff that shames the whole industry – while protecting the rest, whether it be harmless trivia or public interest investigation of national importance.

Not a single witness called upon the judge to go further than that. No one asked for state censorship and certainly Hacked Off is not campaigning for that: we stand for press freedom and we support such vital causes as libel reform and the extension of public interest defences in law.

A sloppy propaganda technique now in use lists major pieces of journalism – Thalidomide, MPs expenses, cash for questions, even the exposure of Jimmy Savile – and insists that ‘this will not be possible after Leveson reports’. It is clumsy, deceitful scaremongering. No one investigating serious public interest matters has anything to fear from the judge.

The third reason is this. Rather than being a milestone in the history of freedom for journalists, this is about freedom and power for editors and proprietors. Should they be unaccountable? Should they be free to disregard at will the code of practice they themselves wrote?

Should they be free to claim on the one hand that they are responsible for everything in their papers, and then plead on the other (as they did, one by one, before Leveson) that whenever something went wrong they were on holiday, took an early night, or just didn’t remember?

The editors have insisted for years that their journalists have the PCC code written into their contracts. Do they have it in theirs? I doubt it, because if they do, every one of them that published lies about the McCanns (pictured above) would surely have been sacked. They are simply not accountable, and they take no responsibility.

This is not what journalism is supposed to be like. As with any industry, business or service that has disgraced itself in the eyes of the public, journalism now has to clean up its act and win back trust. The editors and proprietors who got journalism into this mess are incapable of fixing things. Their plans for change simply let them off the hook, and they even have ideas for dumping any difficult consequences on ordinary journalists.

Having observed the Leveson process closely from the outset I am convinced of two things. The first is that conscientious journalists who check their stories carefully have nothing to fear. The second is that if the editors and proprietors get their way and are allowed another few years in the last chance saloon they will soon be trashing the reputation of journalism worse than ever before.

Visit the Hacked Off website: www.hackingquiry.org and follow Brian Cathcart on @BrianCathcart

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