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Ed Miliband right to call for press enquiry

There is a great deal wrong with the press and a Commission of Inquiry into its abuses is long overdue. Nor is it just a matter of the multiple phone hacking scandal, the News International lying about it, the police complicity with the Murdoch organisation in seeking to close down any investigation, and the supine failure of the Press Complaints Commission under its Tory chair Lady Buscombe to deal with News of the World payments to the police for stories. That is sufficient in its own right for a proper judicial inquiry, and even the Tory chair of the Lords Communications Select Committee, Lord Fowler, has been calling for this. But the inquiry needs to go wider.

Nobody, as Miliband rightly emphasised, is calling for Government regulation of the press. But self-regulation has failed so egregiously on so many occasions that it has become almost meaningless and is merely a cover for press organisations to do whatever they like with impunity. It is the banner the press always wave to avoid the sort of scrutiny themselves that they would insist on imposing on everyone else. There have to be a code of ethics and standards of honesty, integrity, balance and accountability which are rigorously enforced with adequate sanctions by an independent Commission, replacing the feeble and useless PCC.

Another fundamental weakness of the press is that it overwhelmingly reflects the interests and prejudices of a small clique of tycoons who own it. As a result the newspapers, with only a very few exceptions, propagate a very narrow range of views which coincide with the partisanship of an ultra-rich business elite. Extreme wealth shouldn’t be allowed to influence the distribution of news and comment, and the structure of control should instead be opened up by limiting ownership to one daily and one Sunday and by encouraging more new title start-ups and more independent trusts which are more likely to reflect the growing diversity of opinion in modern Britain.

Accountability is the other key missing requirement today. The press always proclaim freedom, but freedom without responsibility degenerates into licence and abuse. There should be a right of reply, as already exists in many other countries, whereby subject to rapid investigation by an adjudicating body equal space with equal prominence is offered to the offended party to contest gross misrepresentation or falsehood.

At a deeper level, news distribution, which provides a unique privileged role in society, should be accountable to the public interest. An organisation which grossly and repeatedly breaches the law, then lies to cover up its offences, and consorts with the police and political authorities to evade all responsibility can be deemed to have forfeited public trust. The Commission of Inquiry which Ed Miliband is calling for should consider whether such an organisation could continue in that role or be broken up.

One Comment

  1. Jacquie R says:

    The proposed inquiry is necessary, but should it not form part of a wider inquiry into the whole area of media ownership, particularly from a plurality perspective?

    At DemocracyFail we have been arguing for the appointment of a fully fledged media commission to undertake this role, and part of its remit would be to redefine “media plurality”.
    There’s clearly much confusion about its interpretation. Jeremy Hunt, for instance, seems to think it means that News Corporation can own more than half of Britain’s mass media!

    And although it’s good to hear Ed Miliband finally saying a bit more on this subject, his continual failure to link the phone-hacking to the BSkyB takeover is quite shameful. If, as predicted, Hunt’s decision next week supports the bid, the Labour leadership will have to take some of the responsibility.

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