Axing the PCC means re-examining the balance of privacy v public interest – but will investigative journalism pay the price? Asks John Kampfner
This article first appeared in the Guardian
On virtually any day of the week, if you so fancy, you can attend a conference somewhere in Britain on the state of the media. Even before the Guardian revealed the depravity of the hacking scandal, you could discuss the rights and wrongs of privacy, courtesy of Max Mosley et al; the need to reform our hideous libel laws, which my organisation and others have led; or the relationship between open information and confidentiality, thanks to Julian Assange.
Throw in the long-running discussion about print versus internet, and a veritable industry has been created on the future of the press. With so many people worrying about so much for so long, how did this crisis unfold before our eyes?
Two inquiries will seek answers. The first, which the government claims will have to await the outcome of police criminal investigations, will provide the great drama. Men and women, including some of the most powerful people in the land, may be led into the dock. The extent of corruption in the Metropolitan police will be unearthed. The biggest prize of all, if achieved, will be the emasculating of News International as a political force.
The less exciting but just as important investigation will focus on the ethics of journalism. It is likely that a successor will emerge from the ruins of the Press Complaints Commission, a body that in its composition, remit and powers was woefully inadequate from the start.
Senior figures at the PCC became agitated with me for my criticisms, arguing that advocates for free expression should be more supportive. The opposite is true, and demonstrated their lack of understanding of the problem. Free speech is undermined by consistently poor standards and by limp supervision – a point forcefully put by the Commons culture select committee in March 2010.
The PCC, chaired by Lady Buscombe, was a mediation service, not a regulator. Even at the height of last week’s saga, it seemed to have no idea of the scale of the scandal. Its consistent plea over the years that it could intervene only after a complaint was made further eroded its credibility.
Up to this point there is some consensus. Root out and punish this industrial-scale criminality for sure; but then what? Can a strong media ever be whiter than white? And even if one could be created, would it benefit democracy?
In order to unearth wrongdoing, investigative journalism uses a variety of nefarious methods: secret recording and filming, impersonation, trading in “stolen goods”, and, yes, phone hacking. From WikiLeaks, to MPs’ expenses, to documentaries about MPs and lobbyists, to exposing arms trading, some of the most lauded reporters – including on this paper – have pushed the boundaries of legality. The inquiry should be careful about blanket bans.
For some there is an easy answer: stop the redtops plying their grubby trade and focus on political and business journalism and other “respectable” subjects. I would love the tabloids to return to the values of the Mirror of old, before the advent of celebrity and the paps – and we should certainly try – but do we want to replicate the media culture of countries such as France where three or four posh papers are read by a tiny proportion of the population?
The answer, as with privacy and other issues, requires a proper definition (which has so far eluded us) of public interest and accountability. Does a particular investigation serve the public good? That is almost always a subjective judgment. As for accountability, any such activity must on each occasion be signed off by an editor, responsible in law for those actions.
Impose further impediments to investigative journalism and the only people who will benefit are those with power who have something to hide. Hark back to Tony Blair’s illusory weapons of mass destruction or the sharp practices of bankers and ask: do we, as a society, know too much about what goes on or too little?
During the parliamentary debate last Wednesday, a number of MPs showed a creditable sensitivity to the problems. Others are simply chomping at the bit to exact revenge on a profession that has, in their minds, done them in.
Ignore the newfound piety of politicians bemoaning the influence of Rupert Murdoch. Did Blair have to fly halfway round the world in the mid-90s to pay homage? To what degree did some journalists help get some in Downing Street off the hook during the Hutton inquiry? And when that inquiry was published, controversially exonerating Alastair Campbell and others, how did it end up in the pages of the Sun in advance? At each year’s party conference, special seats would be reserved for Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) and her entourage, and she would take hers with the imperiousness of Cleopatra.
As David Cameron argued on Friday, in a vain attempt to deflect attention from his unhealthy links with Andy Coulson, Brooks and the Murdochs, they were all in it together, all these ministers and these editors and proprietors.
It is simply not good enough for politicians to claim they had no choice. They loved it. Labour chose not to deal with media cross-ownership when it had the chance. The Tories sought to wave through television dominance, until being shamed into a rethink.
This was a sordid trade-off in which politicians of all parties were culpable. In return for this humiliation, perhaps a sense of self-loathing, they sought to bully journalists from other stables who had the temerity to ask inconvenient questions. Any consideration of the ethics of journalism should look at the personal links between the Westminster press gallery and spin doctors and advisers. A much more subtle form of corruption has been at play there for decades.
So exactly what kind of media do we want? A new focus on standards, transparency and accountability can only be beneficial. Journalists love to dish it; most of them hate to take it. The industry operates a virtualomerta on exposing its own failings. Private Eye’s Street of Shame column provides a valuable public service in exposing what newspapersdo not publish as much as what they do. Several newspapers operate “non-aggression pacts”, in which they do not report the wrongdoings of their rivals – including revelations of affairs that they would readily publish about people in other walks of life.
This broader culture of collusion was one of the most appalling aspects of the phone-hacking scandal. Some of the journalists opining now in print or on Twitter about the evils of Murdoch-land either ignored the Guardian’s dogged reporting or sniped at the newspaper for its “obsessiveness”. Even in recent days, a number of newspapers – not only in the News International stable – tried hard to play down the significance until they were forced to give the story due prominence.
This story has pointed to the many dark corners of journalism. It is also a triumph of journalism. It would be a tragedy if, through the wrong kind of regulation, this kind of tenacious work was now stunted. Thanks to our libel laws, editors have for years advised reporters not to pursue certain people, even when they knew the story would stand up to scrutiny. Causing trouble usually damages cashflow.
This is a tough time to be promoting freedom of expression. You cannot have only the free speech you think is worthy. The instinct now is to tar everyone with the same brush. Even before this scandal happened, the government was looking at tightening controls of the internet. It has been moving towards libel reform with publication of the draft defamation bill; it should not use the past week’s events to dilute planned changes that are already cautious.
No country has the perfect media. The Americans love to scoff at our press standards, pointing to their “fact-checking” as a norm. Yet even that high altar of journalism, the New York Times, has got it terribly wrong on several important occasions. The US culture can lead to self-censorship on sensitive issues, particularly at times of crisis such as after 9/11, and to excessive respect for authority.
I remember wincing at summits when the Americans would stand to attention as president and prime minister walked in, while the Brits sat sullenly in their chairs. I know which I prefer and which is healthier for democracy. The same goes, in different ways, for France. Do we want privacy laws that render every photograph, every action private unless specifically rendered public?
It would be a tragedy if the impetus behind the past week’s events dissipated and, with a few short-term improvements in behaviour, the media returned to its past practices. It would be an equal tragedy if – as a result of both genuine and disingenuous anger – a new culture were developed of dull, hemmed-in journalism that appealed only to an elite.
The task facing the inquiry is to help foster a new journalism as a fearless and painstaking challenge to authority, one that makes mistakes, oversteps the mark, irritates and offends, but that is fully accountable for its actions.
John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship and author of “Freedom For Sale