There is rarely a good time for politicians to broach the contentious issue of media regulation. Who wants to incur the wrath of swaggering newspaper editors who protect the status quo with such zeal? But, as is often the case, the reluctance to tackle a situation that has been out of control for far too long means that the issue itself has finally decided to force itself on our politics. The era in which accountability applied to everyone except the media themselves is finally over. Journalists are wrong to fear this because improving accountability will actually strengthen the standing of their own profession and protect them from the coercive abuse of power which has gone on for decades by anachronistic “press barons”.
Despite the short term discomfort that this crisis might cause David Cameron, it has also reunited him with his natural instincts regarding the media and the current context now allows him to do something about it. After one year he is doing what Labour failed to do in a decade. We all have a role to play. Senior politicians do not need to attack the media Alastair Campbell-style but, through their actions, they should aim to quietly puncture the inflated self importance of both editors and proprietors and to simultaneously boost the status of real journalism. Invitations to speak at News Corp’s annual conference and the many press awards ceremonies should be politely declined. Shrill leader columns should be ignored as one might ignore a child’s tantrum. There should be fewer cosy dinners with editors and proprietors but more access to journalists and columnists to talk about real issues.
Current events have also opened up debate about how media standards can be improved. Some vested interests in the media are already trying to assert that any attempt to improve standards and ethics would be an affront to free speech, but they are wrong. Journalists should welcome greater accountability in their profession because it protects their integrity too. What journalist can be happy to see the conduct which led to the hacking scandal defended in the name of free speech? How do they feel when their editor orders them to write a story in a particular way because the proprietor has been on the phone or because the editor is simply angry that an announcement was briefed to a rival title? Such a culture not only represents a betrayal of those who read newspapers, it is also an abuse of the profession of journalism and it should not be tolerated in the name of free speech.
To be fair, there was not much wrong with the PCC code, it is just that it was not enforced as vigorously as it needed to be and the sanctions for breaches of the code were not tough enough. In designing a new order for media standards, we should borrow aspects of the broadcasting code which is laid down in statute and (whatever some might think of the BBC) has arguably given us the most trusted broadcast media in the world. I wouldn’t want to see every aspect of the broadcasting code applied to newspapers because I think there is an important cultural difference and, in particular, we should not apply an expectation of impartiality on our newspapers. However, in other respects, there are principles that could be directly transferred.
First, when a newspaper deliberately prints a news story which is demonstrated to be false and which they had been told was false, they should be required to give the same prominence to the correction as they gave to the original story. So if they splash a false story on their front page then they must be required to give a subsequent front page to an apology. It cannot be in the public interest for newspapers to wilfully print stories that they know to be untrue. Making them occasionally sacrifice their front page for deliberately misleading their readers would focus minds.
Second, there need to be proper sanctions for breaches. A broadcaster who breaches their code faces severe fines. This is a difficult area. The newspaper industry is struggling already so there is no appetite to create new financial burdens on them. But it can’t be healthy for Britain to have a large section of the media run by wealthy individuals who see newspapers, not as a commercial enterprise, but as a loss making hobby which might just buy them some kind of status or influence. That is the corrosive culture which has contributed to the current mess and which must now be addressed and this requires that any new code must be enforced. The press barons will inevitably emerge from this crisis weakened but, if we handle it correctly, true journalism could emerge stronger than ever.