In defence of journalism

20 Mar 2013

David Cameron's Royal Charter on press regulation was always going to be met with caution. Many journalists see regulation, whether self or statuary, as 'crossing the Rubicon' and an invasion into the freedoms of the British press. Having previously rejected some aspects of Lord Justice Leveson's proposals following his inquiry into press standards, it was feared that Mr Cameron would be unable to reach a cross-party agreement on the issue. However, following talks which lasted until until 2:30am on Monday morning, the prime minister, his deputy Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband eventually came up with a proposal which they envisaged would satisfy the press along with the victims who had suffered from press invasion.


After compromising with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Mr Cameron laid out the plans for a press regulator, established through the mechanism of a Royal Charter which would have the power to order wayward newspapers to publish apologies and face fines up to £1m. Self-regulatory or not, try convincing the lobby journalists at Westminster that this isn't 'crossing the Rubicon'.

The reasons behind the Leveson Inquiry which looked into the nature of press standards were, of course, due to serious accusations of press misconduct where the use of phone hacking had vindictively interfered with personal lives. Families including the McCann's and the Dowler's, along with the case of Christopher Jefferies have all been victims of a technique which should rightly be banned by the industry. There are also the celebrities who have suffered too, including Charlotte Church, Sienna Miller and Jude Law who have received damage payments as a result of Lord Leveson's Inquiry. 

However, phone hacking aside; is it fair that the British press should be stripped of certain freedoms which could potentially affect future publications? The Royal Charter revealed in the Commons on Monday may not have announced plans for statutory regulation; however, by stating that regulation under a Royal Charter would impact "news-related material", there has been confusion over whether online blogs and websites such as Twitter would also be subject to scrutiny. One journalist in particular has notoriously made his views known on the issue of press regulation. Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator had repeatedly expressed his concern with proposals for regulation, and it appears that he will not sign the government's Royal Charter in order to save his magazine from the invasion of potentially damaging legislation. Indeed, publishing the headline "NO. Why we aren't signing" on the front of his publication this week seems to clarify his point. 

As with any debate there are two sides to every argument so while one should recognise the damage done by phone hacking, the positive sides of investigative journalism should not be ignored. Take MPs expenses. Is it not in the public interest to publish just how tax payer's money is being spent by politicians who feel justified to claim for additional extras? Then there is the case of Chris Huhne. Do the public feel let down by the conviction of a former cabinet minister who tried to escape a criminal offence? More importantly, however, Channel 4's Michael Crick recently demonstrated why we must protect the nature of investigative journalism, and indeed proved how the media can also work in the government's interest. Had it not been for Mr Crick's Dispatches episodes following the downfall of disgraced former Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, it may not have been uncovered that Mr Mitchell could have been a victim in a plot to unseat his cabinet position. Fresh CCTV evidence following the accusation that he verbally abused Downing Street police officers, along with the discovery that a former police officer posed as a member of the public suggests that the case held against him was not entirely genuine. So as well as operating in the public interest, the press can also go a long way in supporting the government as well.

Given the mixed response to the government's proposed Royal Charter, it seems that the relationship between the press and those in power has not eased. There is still considerable tension between journalists who will forever stand for the rights of press freedom, and those who feel that the industry has swayed too far the other way. The point to remember though is that whether they like it or not, the government generally needs the press to be on their side. Whatever is written in the media can significantly influence public interest which is why a balance between the two needs to be maintained. That said, if one looks closer into the small print of Mr Cameron's Royal Charter, you will see why its nature has been met with caution by those working to protect the freedom of the British press.

By Emily Stacey

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