How to protect the freedom of the press

Submitted by Matthew on 20 July, 2011 - 12:25

Does the News International scandal imply a need for public intervention in the media? Or would that lead to restrictions on the ability of journalists to investigate corruption within powerful institutions in society? Ian Overton, award-winning documentary maker and Director of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, gave his views to Solidarity.

The idea of the fourth estate regulating the fourth estate is a good one, but I do not think the fourth estate should be regulated by the first three. We need self-regulation and ultimately, in a commercially-driven media, market forces will dictate.

There’s a demand for consequences, but we’ve already seen them; a newspaper has collapsed, we’ve seen senior individuals, including police officers, resign and Murdoch’s been brought before parliament.

My major concern out of all of this is that newspapers may now be forced to adhere to much stricter legal requirements in terms of how they conduct investigations. That’s fine when it comes to hacking Milly Dowler’s phone, but what about hacking the phone of an unknown hedge fund manager who’s playing the markets illegally and the FSA is refusing to investigate?

This is the third big story in as many years — with the financial crisis and MPs’ expenses — that has involved people in positions of enormous power absolutely refusing to acknowledge problems with how that power was wielded and how they conducted themselves. There’s a peculiarly British belief that people in such positions wouldn’t be capable of such high levels of corruption, but that’s been proved wrong.

How can we rely on the judiciary to investigate and regulate corruption in the media when they themselves may be corrupt? For example, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has recently been rapped over the knuckles over alleged corruption in the jury service. We need an independent fourth estate to challenge these things.

We need to avoid a situation where a journalist can be arrested for writing something dissenting, which does happen in some so-called “democracies”, or where a newsreader can be sacked for saying something the government doesn’t like, which happens in Italy.

If I’m investigating a wealthy businessman who decides to throw his lawyers at me, I need to get my own lawyers in order to respond to that and I end up spending money on legal defence that I should be spending on journalism. If an editor of a commercial publication is faced with a robust lawyer, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on them to say that a contentious story is simply not worth printing.

I wouldn’t describe the reaction to the scandal as “hysteria”. Hysteria to me implies rioting in the streets, burning tyres and smashing windows. There is a certain outcry for something to be done, but something has been done; the Guardian and New York Times pushed and pushed and exposed this. In future, someone like Paul Dacre running the Daily Mail would be an absolute to fool to let his journalists use anything but the most upright tactics in their investigations. We’ve drawn a line in the sand here and to an extent this was a necessary blood-letting.

I don’t think it means we need an extension of privacy laws, as Jack Straw is calling for. The buck has to stop with the editors of publications. I believe journalists should be empowered; editors need to hold them accountable for the accuracy of their reporting but in terms of basic responsibility that lies with the editors. The way journalists go about their work will reflect the culture that their editor has developed in the newsroom, so I wouldn’t blame individual journalists for this in the same way that I’d blame generals, rather than rank-and-file soldiers, for crimes committed during a war.

Journalists are a difficult, cantankerous and challenging bunch, and that’s positive. They have to be that way for them to do their jobs. But there need to be clear judgements about what’s in the public interest. A story about a footballer sleeping with a prostitute is not in the public interest; that’s titillation.

Going after and challenging the corruption of power is in the public interest, and journalists need to remain free to do that.

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