To improve the culture, practice and ethics of the press, we must protect and promote the best of journalism. Alan Rusbridger makes the case for a new settlement
I have always believed that the most interesting period in the phone hacking story was the 18-month period following the Guardian ’s original revelation of the Gordon Taylor settlement — which blew apart News International’s “one rotten apple” defence in July 2009. It was interesting precisely because almost nothing happened. All the dogs one would expect to bark in such a situation stayed silent. From the politicians, to the police, to the regulator, to the press themselves.
The Leveson Inquiry has finally given us some insight into what was happening in this period. The inquiry has had criticism — some merited, some not. But no one can doubt that Leveson has uncovered uncomfortable truths about the way a number of journalists — as well as politicians and police — have worked in the past. In what other sphere of public life do we think that transparency of this kind is an undesirable thing? I am confident that good things can flow from holding the press up to scrutiny, however difficult it may have been at times.
The press in this country has been under-regulated but over-legislated. There is a risk that by addressing only one side of this equation — by only strengthening regulation — the inquiry will undermine the strength of our press to do the work we all deem so vital. We therefore argued the inquiry should redress the balance between regulation and legislation and make recommendations that meet the twin objectives of protecting the public and protecting press freedom. It is not possible to improve the culture, practice and ethics of the press without protecting and promoting the best of journalism in the public interest.
We believe therefore in a new settlement which will address four deficiencies.
The 2011 Global Press Freedom Rankings placed the UK in joint 26th place. Libel law has been cited by many investigative journalists as the main constraint on their work. The current defamation bill makes some improvements but says little, for example, on early dispute resolution. Libel is an essential piece of this jigsaw, especially through an alternative dispute resolution system which we hope Lord Justice Leveson will propose.
Another measure of freedom is whether reporters are genuinely free to follow any story they wish — or to what extent proprietorial, editorial or commercial pressures circumscribe, or otherwise influence, the freedom to report on matters of genuine public interest. Without the sort of plurality that enables the Guardian to exist as well as other, much bigger and wealthier titles, it’s doubtful we would have learned about phone hacking. It is understandable that Leveson does not feel able to do a full review of plurality jurisprudence. But anything which concentrates power in the hands of fewer and fewer multi-billionaire proprietors will impoverish our society. The current plurality framework — which apparently granted no one the power to intervene over the BSkyB deal — is plainly insufficient to ensure the kind of plurality that is necessary for a healthy democracy. And this is about more than News Corporation, as anyone following developments in Australian media ownership will testify.
While the digital transition brings many benefits — above all, an explosion in free expression that enriches democratic discourse — we must tackle one of its less desirable consequences: a diminution in public interest journalism. Investigative journalism — costly, unpredictable and with no direct revenues attached — is often among the first savings to be made. Other forms of reporting — foreign correspondents, court reporters, specialists — are next. So editors and reporters simply don’t have the freedom to do the reporting that society may want or need. Regulation should therefore enhance the climate for this work, not diminish it. This will include protections for public interest journalism in regulation as well as through consistent application of public interest defences in laws affecting the media.
The press must accept that the breach of trust engendered by a series of Editors’ Code breaches and a discredited PCC needs tackling immediately and resolutely. That’s why we have argued for an ambitious system of regulation that includes the use of an alternative dispute resolution system that benefits both complainants and publishers by delivering meaningful redress for breaches of the Editors’ Code, quickly and cheaply. A measure of this strength is essential to prevent the introduction of compulsory or statutory mechanisms to deliver full participation that may undermine press freedom. But it also demonstrates that the press is determined to improve its standards and practices without recourse to judges. So let’s hope that Leveson proposes a balanced package of proposals, in effect a new settlement that both restores trust in journalism and strengthens our role in serving the public interest.
Alan Rusbridger is editor-in chief, Guardian News & Media