An inquiry into press practice will be good for free speech
John Kampfner: An inquiry into press practice will be good for free speech
21 Apr 11

This article first appeared in the Guardian

Two cheers for Ed Miliband. In calling for an independent review of the way newspapers behave he is taking a big political risk, opening the door to concerted hostility from media magnates. He also happens to be right on the principle that freedom of expression and holding truth to power are not synonymous with dodgy journalistic practice. He might deserve a third cheer if it were not for the brazen opportunism he and his party are showing by taking on Rupert Murdoch only now that the love is lost.

Before the caveats and the cavilling, credit should be given where it is due. Miliband is seeking to take on the good work carried out two years ago by the cross-party Commons select committee on culture, media and sport. When the MPs issued their report they correctly identified and separated out three related strands: the need for libel reform; issues of privacy; and press standards.

Their inquiry looked at the media in the round, but also at some egregious cases of abuse. This included the hounding of Gerry and Kate McCann, and the bugging of telephones of politicians and celebrities by the News of the World – which News Corporation is only now, drip by drip, beginning to admit.

The MPs made a point that should be blindingly obvious to the media profession – that legitimate investigation is vital to keeping checks on the powerful, but that intrusion into people’s lives, particularly through subterfuge, is not.

Seen from one level, the British media are forced to operate under considerable constraint. Until now England and Wales have been global pariahs, sporting some of the most restrictive libel laws in the developed world. It is a tribute to all political parties, but mostly the coalition, that the Libel Reform Campaign led by Index on Censorship and its partners has produced draft legislation that goes some way to removing the chill on free expression and investigative journalism. Sure, the bill is not perfect, but the great should not be the enemy of the good. After all, this is the first serious attempt in 70 years to tackle the problem.

Privacy is the thorniest problem. Hypocrisy should be exposed. What about the celebrity who parades their private life in choreographed photoshoots for glossy magazines but then wishes to hide from public view when things go awry? That is a moot point. Assuming you are a public figure but you make no pronouncements on lifestyles or ethics and you do not parade your life in the glare of the cameras, surely you are entitled to privacy? You are, thanks to the Human Rights Act. But as ever, our suspicious judges are interpreting the legislation in a manner hostile to a free media.

Ranged against the long lens is the epidemic of the super-injunction. The master of the rolls (the second most senior judge in England and Wales) is due to report on an issue that serves as a perfect example of rich man’s justice. The very idea that the media should be gagged and that the public is prevented from knowing that such an order exists is more in keeping with a dictatorship.

This brings us back to media standards. One of the biggest hindrances to strong investigation is cost. Editors and the bean counters who oversee them are reluctant to invest in long-term projects that might prove fruitless. The democratic deficit in the demise of investigative journalism is immense. But gossip, spleen and prurience are no substitute, and no remedy for budget cuts and falling sales.

As for dodgy practice, this is where taste meets the law meets expediency. Chequebook journalism? Secret recordings? Fine, one might think, if properly authorised and if in the public interest. Where should the line be drawn?

To take a few famous recent examples: the Telegraph’s use of young and attractive female reporters to trap Vince Cable into making indiscreet remarks about Murdoch and other public figures (dubious but compelling); the same publisher’s use of a stolen computer disc to reveal MPs’ expenses (now seen as triggering a clear-out of parliamentary sleaze); or the Guardian’s publication of unauthorised US state department data, otherwise known as the WikiLeaks affair or Cablegate. Everyone has their own view about the ethics behind these incidents and more.

The News of the World phone-hacking scandal is of a different order. Allegations of illegal practices are being investigated. Its pond might be considerably murkier, but nobody’s is entirely free of weed. Nobody has come out of the Screws affair well – least of all the police or the Press Complaints Commission. The commission has still to apologise for, or learn from, its supine approach to the affair. As the last hope for self-regulation, for keeping politicians and meddling judges away from the Fourth Estate, the PCC is under scrutiny as never before.

The commission gives frequent assurances that it really doesn’t work as a shop steward for the industry but as a protector of free speech and of fairness, accuracy and standards. Its appointment of three senior and respected figures to its board bodes well, but there is a long way to go.


Miliband, in his interview in the Guardian, said he had no grand plan for a review into print media – while making clear it should be fully independent of government “and from those involved in the day to day running of newspapers”. He added: “I think that would help the industry. There has to be a sense that the future is not going to be like that past. Wider lessons have to be learned.”

He is entirely correct but selective in drawing his conclusions. For more than a decade New Labour was slavish to the Murdoch empire, and initially too to the Daily Mail and Associated Newspapers. Tony Blair did everything – including flying around the world to an Australian island – to ingratiate himself with Rupert Murdoch. It was only after the empire had dumped Gordon Brown in favour of David Cameron that Labour ministers such as Peter Mandelson began to bleat about media cross-ownership and assorted injustices.

Would Miliband now be making these same noises if he had not been left out in the cold by the omnipotent Antipodean? Of course not, but that does not make him wrong. Free speech is not threatened by good practice. It is defended.