This article first appeared in the Financial Times
The claim that someone working for the News of the World, the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, might have hacked into the voicemail of a murdered teenager after she went missing reinforces the view that depraved practices have been taking place on an industrial scale for many years. Hundreds of people – not all celebrities – have had their phones hacked to glean private information. It will be for police and prosecutors to decide who, beyond the two men jailed in 2007 (a News of the World journalist and a private investigator) and others under investigation, should be pursued.
Anger is easy; finding the remedy will be harder. Britain’s parliament will today debate the issue, before hosting a public meeting that will call for an inquiry into the scandal. The initiative was organised by present and former journalists, some of them now in academia, with impeccable motives. They want to clean up the profession, to drive out the criminals. Who can disagree?
Indeed, there are many areas on which mainstream journalists and politicians agree. Self-regulation for the written press is surely the best way of ensuring the right mix of independence, scrutiny and standards. The UK’s regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, has long been considered toothless – in an interview on Tuesday, the best its chairman could offer was a “review” and a yelp that she had been lied to.
The PCC insists that the reality is better than the perception, that it has prevented several wrongful acts without fanfare but is not given due credit. Yet any organisation that loses public confidence struggles to restore it without fundamental reform. The PCC, in its present configuration, is woefully inadequate.
This is a tough time to be promoting freedom of expression. The instinct among many of the media’s critics is to tar everyone with the same brush. Unfashionable though it might sound, however, the problem in the UK is not too much investigation, but too little. By investigation, I mean the dogged extraction of facts that those with power would wish to conceal. Investigative journalism has for years been in decline – a result of economic factors and some of the world’s most restrictive defamation laws. My organisation has, with our partners, led the campaign for libel law reform. The danger is that reform, which has been progressing slowly since publication of a draft defamation bill, is seen within the context of a “feral” media, as Tony Blair famously described it.
The same goes for discussions on privacy, a right that in recent years has gained primacy over the competing right to free expression. A committee of parliament has been asked to investigate how privacy is defined; who is entitled to it; what exactly is meant by the public interest; and when it should override other concerns.
The third potential constraint on free speech, also gaining currency among politicians, is greater control of the internet. Again, this is a complex area, but the instinct appears to be to find ways of restricting free expression.
No country has a perfect media, and goodness knows Britain’s is flawed. But a healthy democracy should err on the side of journalists finding out too much rather than too little. By definition it is a rough trade. If an investigative reporter knows of, say, an arms company up to no good, should he in future be prevented from using subversive or undercover methods to seek out the truth? The criterion must be a heightened understanding of the public good, tested to distraction by editors and managers.
An inquiry on phone hacking should be welcomed if it serves a broader purpose of not just rooting out the criminals and the sharks – but of helping to restore journalism to its rightful place as a fearless but fair challenge to authority.
John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship and author of “Freedom For Sale”