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Doctors don’t regulate themselves, so why should the press?

newspapers, pic by 123rf.comFor eight months now the press have been allowed to pursue every finagling twist and turn to avoid being held to account after the horrors of the hacking scandal in the hope that memories of their illegal behaviour will gradually fade and they can then return yet again to business as usual, like the banks.

The outstanding issue is not about the details of the Leveson proposals (which have been almost universally accepted) so much as about the nature of press freedom. If press freedoms are to be preserved (and nobody dissents from that), then, it is argued, the regime must be genuinely voluntary. That immediately raises two questions. What is press freedom? And if the regime is ‘genuinely voluntary’, doesn’t that give those newspapers who have broken the law (and nearly all newspapers engaged in hacking on a big scale) a veto on anything they dislike?

Press freedom doesn’t mean that newspapers have a licence to write and publish whatever they like? They have a duty to write responsibly, checking their sources carefully and accurately reflecting both sides of the argument. They have no right to propagandise in favour of the editor’s or proprietor’s prejudices, but should always give a balanced reporting of events. Of course press freedom means that newspapers should be wholly independent of government interference, but equally it means that they should be wholly independent of the influence of vastly rich proprietors who indirectly, if not directly, dictate the line their newspapers are to take.

There is a huge deficit in press freedom today, but not because of Leveson. There is no right of reply. Cross-media ownership is permitted between print and broadcasting, significantly limiting freedom’s diversity. Most proprietors are either foreign or not domiciled in Britain, which makes the UK press less a reflector with integrity of the range of British life than a bauble of international capital. The Press Complaints Commission was a sham, and there is still today no accountability of the British press.

Nor does press freedom mean that the newspaper bosses, after years of abuse which they have ignored, should now be allowed to choose an oversight regime which continues to suit their interests. No other power group in the country, not even the banks let alone doctors in the NHS, is given the right to choose the regime they themselves want for their own purposes. So why should the media be the unique exception?

All power groups, so far from being allowed to serve their own interests – the corollary of a ‘genuinely voluntary’ regime – should be required to serve the national interest. And by any standards the press as currently constituted does not do that and is not fit for purpose. It does not present the news fairly and objectively.

The likes of autocrat Murdoch, Ayatollah Dacre and pornographer Desmond are incompatible with a genuinely free, open and balanced press. We need a new ownership structure – rather on the independent trust model – and there has to be a regulated system (and Leveson’s is by far the best yet proposed) which neither the State nor tycoons can manipulate to their own ends.

One Comment

  1. Robert says:

    Sadly these Press barons have been power bases for centuries, and for centuries politicians have accepted they are handy to get over issues be it welfare or how wars are needed.

    So what went wrong here, not a lot really the press barons used under hand methods to get news, as I suspect they have been doing for years, but they attacked some politicians hacking phones, then they came out with expenses scandals and really serious attack on the MP’s.

    I think the public have already moved on from the phone hacking scandal, and I suspect people like Cameron and Miliband are not happy they cannot phone up the Sun and state how about a meeting to discuss backing me and my Newer Labour.

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