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Press ethics: Out of control?

By Roger Bush

Hardly have Charlie Harris (the Press and privacy) and Amanda Brodie (the Government’s draft Defamation Bill) raised these subjects in The Journal (Spring issue) than the whole area of press ethics has gone ballistic, with the phone-hacking scandal absorbing acres of print. I do find the whole business rather over-inflated, fuelled as it is by politicians still smarting from all those expenses stories and by media interests keen on frustrating a controversial takeover bid.

Spying and surveillance have always been a part of investigative journalism, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. Back in the 1980s, when for three troubled years I was concerned with public relations for the Property Services Agency, I faced one intractable problem. Despite all its good work, innovative designs and projects, the only PSA stories the media were interested in were those to do with fraud and corruption, not unfamiliar activities in the construction and building industries. After a raft of reports and cuttings involving Devonport Dockyard, I asked members of the PSA Board to find me a squeaky-clean District Works Office (DWO) where I could take a BBC TV team who were making a short documentary on government public works. The office chosen was the Westminster DWO, standing almost in the shadow of the Department of Environment headquarters in Marsham Street. The TV team duly arrived, interviewed a number of key staff and took some background footage of the office at work. It’s just the way of things that about 15 seconds of film showing men loading or unloading a van in the yard behind the office were all that reached the screen; the rest was binned, I guess. But how the producers must have kicked themselves when, less than a month later, that same DWO was revealed as every bit as corrupt as the one at Devonport. The exposure was in the late News of the World, whose reporters had concealed microphones beneath the tables in a local pub, The Barley Mow, and clandestinely recorded conversations between officials and a number of contractors. In fact their story had only been delayed somewhat because the landlord of the pub had recently installed piped music, which obstructed their monitoring operation.

Nothing illegal there, of course, apart from the behaviour of the civil servants and the contracctors. Hidden cameras and microphones were just part of the equipment of investigative journalism. What has happened since is largely down to new technology. It wasn’t that easy to tap a land-line telephone or intercept Royal Mail. But now that all and sundry are communicating by e-mail, mobile phones and voice-mail, social netwroks and the like, security has gone out of the window. I simply wish that more people would be prepared to accept that, while we are all ready to sing the praises of each new development, be it CCTV, camera phones, i-pads, Facebook or Twitter. these products usually have a down-side as well. One way and another we are all open to more surveillance. Privacy is not what it was.

Turning to defamation, the President and I were at a Media Society meeting at which a panel of speakers discussed the draft Defamation Bill. This was in Portcullis House, the Parliamentary extension across Bridge Street from the Palace of Westminster. I must say my attendance was partly down to a wish to see the inside of the building, only opened a few years ago. In my time at PSA it was still on the drawing board and in fact had to wait another fifteen years before it was built. (Anything going up in central Westminster has to go through so many hoops that this time-scale for projects is quite normal.)

The discussion was to have been chaired by John Whittingdale, but at the last minute he was called away to an urgent meeting at No 10. As stand-in chairman, John Battle, of ITN, managed the panel well. It comprised Simon Singh, a journalist involved in a high-profile case; Dr Barendt, an academic lawyer; Mark Stephens, whose firm specialises in media law; and Alastair Brett, formerly of The Times and The Sun newspapers. Members of the panel were all in favour of reform, but less sure that the draft Bill did more than scratch the surface. By several times asking for a show of hands from the audience, the Chairman established that many of those present had also been unimpressed by it.

After the meeting I talked to Alastair Brett, an old sparring partner of my friend Ivor Cole (of Associated Newspapers). He had expressed himself keen for an expanded role for the Press Complaints Commission in libel and defamation cases. The Commission has recently come under fire for its alleged lack of active investigation of phone hacking complaints. There have been suggestions that it too needs reform. Jack Straw, a former Justice Secretary, thought it might be strengthened into a Press Commission. Perhaps he’s got something there. Twelve years ago I tackled the question of the PCC Code of Practice, “framed by the newspaper and periodical industry and ratified by the PCC”. Unsurprisingly, it is mainly concerned with those areas that give rise to most complaints to the Commission. On ethics it simply exhorts all members of the press “to maintain the highest ethical and professional standards”.

Most codes involve an element of restraint on freedom of action. But any code that is written mainly to cope with actions that give rise to complaints will to some extent help to preserve the situation that gives rise to those complaints. A well constructed code needs to be more positive. In particular it should have something to say about the product or service so that the customer, in this case the reader, knows that those subscribing to the code have an interest in supplying the sort of publication he wants to buy. Among several suggestions I made for such a code, is one that has quite a familiar ring when I look at the coverage of the phone hacking scandal. It goes: “Where an exclusive has been labelled as such, the basis of exclusivity should be spelled out. If a story has been bought, it should carry a price ticket.”

Everyone agrees about the need for freedom of the press. But of course that means freedom to print rubbish if it is thought that rubbish is cheaper to produce and can be sold as easily as quality. Therein lies the need not just for self-restraint but for self-appreciation. It’s the lack of this that poses just as much a threat to newspapers as any controls that might be imposed from outside because of disaffected politicians or public.


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