Euan McColm: The price of a free press is the trouble it brings

Lord Justice Leveson pictured with the report into press standards
Lord Justice Leveson pictured with the report into press standards
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THESE are difficult times for newspapers. There’s a good chance you think that’s fair enough. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press exposed a dark side of our business that shocked people.

It confirmed long-held public suspicions about the activities of some in the newspaper industry’s leaky-piped, strip-lit basement.

Most of us in the trade – and I’ve written about politics for the News of the World and other tabloids – were as repulsed by what emerged in the wake of the Milly Dowler scandal as anyone else. But, of course, I would say that. Here’s another thing I would say: All the terrible things uncovered by Leveson, all the shameful acts of disreputable hacks, all the dirty little tricks, the lives ruined, the lies told – none of that can justify any state interference in our free press.

First Minister Alex Salmond has written to opposition leaders, inviting them to discuss with him on Thursday how best to respond to Leveson’s report.

Those close to Salmond insist he has no hunger for heavy-handed legislation. That’s reassuring. What’s less comforting is the suggestion that the First Minister favours self-regulation underpinned ­legally in “a light touch way”.

The problem with a light touch is that, if you enjoy it, it can soon develop into a firm grasp. When it comes to the press, politicians aren’t most concerned about celebrities whose lives are intruded upon, or members of the public whose secrets are exposed – they’re most concerned about what we say about them and what we expose about how they go about their business.

If this newspaper is doing its job correctly, it’s ruining Sunday breakfast for somebody in power. My colleagues are exposing the lies, the distortions and the sleight of hand that we should all know about. Newspapers are not here to hold the jackets while opposing political parties slog it out. We’re here to ask tough questions of – and, whenever we have to, throw punches at – the people at the top.

Clearly, the Press Complaints Commission has been a resounding failure. Many years ago, I overheard a senior editorial figure offer a colleague the guidance: “F*** the PCC.”

Given that the organisation’s presence had no effect in preventing the worst excesses of press misdeed, it needs to be replaced with a body that can take strong action in forcing speedy corrections 
and impose financial penalties. But self-regulation must remain the only way.

The minute a politician gets his fingers on the process, it’s tainted. Distrust in journalists is one thing. Trusting politicians to find the solution is quite another. It’s conceivable, isn’t it, that a clever 
political leader might see to it that a 
regulatory panel was peopled by members sympathetic to his views?

If we accept the sad fact that a £10,000 fine would be enough to do for any number of local newspapers, we can see how the rights of a free press might be curtailed. The fear of a devastating fine – and some professional integrity – should be enough to ensure the highest standards. Fear of the abuse of fines would be enough to ensure legitimate public interest investigations were dropped.

This is no oversensitivity on my part. This week, I mark 24 years in journalism, and I know how enraged politicians can be by the work we do in holding them to account. They hate the intrusions we make into their business. And they would very much like us to stop.

Politicians may tell us that they’ll defend the rights of a free press at all costs, but give them the chance to influence what we say about them, or how we go about finding out what they’d rather we didn’t, and they will take it. Politicians are, after all, only human.

It may be a leap of faith for readers to trust the industry to set its own house in order, but it’s one a truly free press requires you to make. We must be allowed to strengthen our own self-regulation quickly and move on. For as long as he is “discussing” Leveson, Salmond holds a power over the press with which we should all be uncomfortable. Newspapers must feel able to challenge the First Minister’s – or any politician’s – assertions without feeling that difficult questions 
we ask, on any subject, might feed a 
hunger for more draconian measures to “regulate” us.

The newspaper industry has already changed. The closure of a hugely profitable newspaper focused the minds of even the most laissez faire. The worst of the old-school are gone and a new generation of journalists is growing up, asking serious ethical questions along the way.

If you’re engaged with this newspaper, there’s a chance you’re sympathetic to the way its journalists bring you news and comment (whether you agree with what they say or not). State regulation of any sort would threaten my colleagues’ abilities to do their jobs in your interest.

Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry reminded us that the law failed victims of newspaper malpractice. But we should remember that it was journalists, using contacts, sources, tip-offs – all the legitimate and shady tricks to get to a dark truth – who put that right. The price of a free press is the trouble it brings. Things will never be perfect: editors will overstep the mark, reporters will make mistakes, photographers will intrude, but there is already legal redress against those who break the law. A new self-regulatory body has to be bold and effective. It should award compensation to victims of defamation, who are currently priced out of taking legal action, and should be able to sting offending titles financially.

I’m loath to reduce arguments to sides. But when it comes to down to state regulation – however light touch – of the press, you’re either with us or you’re with the people we hold to account on your behalf. We’d be obliged for your support just now. «

» Twitter: @euanmccolm