Self-regulation: abuse it and lose it

Newspaper journalists are in a privileged position. While broadcasters have all manner of statutory curbs placed upon them – and the risk of huge fines from government regulator Ofcom – newspaper journalists operate in a free market. Like any other citizen, they can write what they want and then take their chances in the law courts if they go too far.

Both political parties currently support self-regulation of the press, suggesting it is currently safe. But self-regulation only works as long as editors and journalists take it seriously and are seen to do so. It only takes a bit of tabloid excess added to public outrage for that system to again be placed in jeopardy – as it was after the death of Princess Diana when her car was chased by paparazzi photographers.

In the case of Robert Murat, all the big tabloid groups published libellous stories about him, apparently happy to take their chances in the courts.

The £800,000 payout for Murat and his two acquaintances would be a huge deterrant for one title – but is far less so when split 11 ways by the co-defending newspapers.

In some cases at least it seems that the newspapers may have gone ahead with publishing dubious stories because the financial risks from the courts were seen as being acceptable commercially.

The Murat stories were not only libellous, they were also in breach of Clause One of the Editors’ Code – Accuracy. Murat never was a prime suspect in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, as some suggested, and he certainly did not have links to a paedophile ring.

Not only has Murat chosen to ignore the PCC in lodging his libel action, but many newspapers ignored the strictures of the Code in the reporting which prompted his action.

If self-regulation is to survive – and it would be a tragedy for press freedom in this country if it did not – journalists and editors must take the Editors’ Code seriously and not abandon it in the stampede to repeat sensational, unproven, libellous and personally damaging claims.

It would only take a high-profile tragedy triggered by irresponsible reporting to prompt the sort of public outcry which could place press self-regulation in jeopardy again.

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