For the past week, the usually competitive chieftains of Britain’s newspaper industry worked together to fend off a measure that, if the pessimists are right, could put a brake on the treasured freedom of the press. They are attempting to frame a reliable way of controlling activities that support sensationalism, which have ranged from phone hacking and wiretapping to photographing the unclad derrieres of the royal, rich, and famous. Their industry comes in the wake of the disclosure, on November 29, of a 2,000-page government-ordered report on press ethics that was masterminded by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson.
While Leveson had no problem in acknowledging the importance of a free press in democratic society, he said with justification that some examples of reporting methodology have been “outrageous”; some had “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
The press, Leveson said, need to fashion a tough and enforceable way of regulating its behavior.This met with little opposition. But when Leveson said new law would be needed to back up any new rules of behavior, there was trouble. Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t like the idea; his deputy Nick Clegg did. Media leaders don’t like it; celebs like Hugh Grant and J. K. Rowling do.
On December 6 the editors announced that they agreed with nearly all of Levenson’s proposals, except for the legislation issue and the idea that a “lay” group would put together the wording of a new code of conduct. They threw the legislation ball back to the government, asking for clues on what “non-statutory” body might oversee the enforcement of regulations that they, the newspapers, would formulate. The editors are staunchly opposed to the involvement of Ofcom (the Office of Communication), a government-approved quasi-national government organization (Quango) that now handles public interfaces with the broadcasting, telecommunications, and postal services.
I listened to Lord Levenson’s remarks on the BBC and thought them reasonable though I deeply regretted his belief that a code of ethics should be “underpinned by legislation”. I was also disturbed to think that, once enshrined, similar ideas could be used as leverage to spread press control in other countries.
Through a long career in media I have believed avidly in freedom of the press and the principle of the Fourth Estate. In America I joined the Society of Professional Journalists, whose code of ethics counsel good journalists to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story”.
In Britain the National Union of Journalists advises that members should obtain material “by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means”; and notes that the honest reporter “does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest”.
What is the definition of “public interest?” I considered that it might apply to the covert gathering of information as investigative journalists uncover criminal activity and political malfeasance. But gossip, distressing “human interest,” and the private lives of celebrities are in a different category, though they are interesting to the public in general.
Among others, the New York Times and the British Guardian stress the journalist’s requirement (in the NYT’s words) to “do nothing that would undermine or dilute [the newspaper’s authority and reputation] and everything possible to enhance it”. The New York Times insists that its staff “may not purloin data, documents or other property, including such electronic property as databases and e-mail or voice mail messages. They may not tap telephones, invade computer files or otherwise eavesdrop electronically on news sources. In short, they may not commit illegal acts of any sort”.
The Guardian’s code is, “above all, to protect and foster the bond of trust between the Guardian (in print and online) and its readers, and therefore to protect the integrity of the paper and of the editorial content it carries”.
Britain’s Press Complaints Commission, its modus operandi prescribed by the newspaper establishment though its operations are supposed to be independent, was expected to oversee principles at least as strict as those of the New York Times and the Society of Professional Journalists. Both say that if clandestine means are used to collect information by the media, this should only be done when in the public interest; further, newspapers should be absolutely transparent about this, explaining for the reader the process of uncovering their information, how, and why. The PCC code says that “whenever the public interest is invoked, [it] will require editors to demonstrate fully how the public interest was served”. These important and eminently reasonable points have been ignored in a number of cases, probably a very large number, the PCC has fizzled like a damp squib, and London has lost a very popular if hyperbolic newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.
One can continue in this vein for a long time, cataloguing the high expectations of editors, publishers, and ordinary journalists who seek to validate the position of print media as the vanguard of the Fourth Estate while simultaneously offering a richness of entertainment value. In the vast majority of cases, as I think Lord Levenson said, codes of ethical practice are taken seriously by the print media. But then of course there are egregious lapses, whether to increase circulation¸ to strengthen the visibility of an editor or reporter, to mistakenly validate mistaken or foolish gossip, or even I suppose to show that print can scoop bloggers and social networks that will never agree on codes to encourage conscientious communication. Plainly the codes put in place by British media industries have not been followed strictly enough, which is neither surprising nor excusable.
Laws that seek to prevent libel, invasion of privacy, and information theft should be sufficient to invoke self-control among editors and reporters, but they do not. Those who misinterpret “public interest” as license to engage in prying, intrusiveness, and scandal-mongering will have their way, as I suspect has been the case for a very long time. Editors and publishers should rein them in, but apparently they have not, at least not with sufficient diligence. There have been too many instances in which secretive snooping has been encouraged by managers, even which it patently has no connection with enhancing the public good. Still we must preserve freedom of the press.
Perhaps dealing with the current brouhaha will yield an agreement to ease a sad situation. I am not optimistic, for questioning media integrity is by no means new in Britain; nor is the failure of codes devised to assure it. Fact is – more than in the United States — a relatively large fraction of the reading public is intrigued or titillated by real-life, right-now scandal, misbehavior, gossip, violence and tragedy, especially when celebrities are involved. In part these interests spring from resentments originated by the class system, by envy of the rich, by vicarious voyeurism. They are encouraged by the more sensational newspapers, which by comparison make only passing note of serious current issues. Here as with other demographic groups, readers control the media that provide what they consider to be news. It follows that if a favored newspaper fails to provide the information they like, readers will find it somewhere else. Then circulation and readership will desert their old favorite, advertisers will withdraw their support, and the newspaper will change its ways or die.
In the mid-1600s John Milton wrote his brilliant argument against press censorship, “Aeropagitica”, which impressed me greatly when I was a young journalism student. In Milton’s time the English government censored and licensed the predecessors of newspapers. In 1694 the law was liberalized. In 1787, nearly a century later, according to Thomas Carlyle, Edmund Burke stood up in the House of Commons and stated that the press was now the nation’s fourth estate, entrusted with commenting freely upon the activities of the other three estates of government. For the sake of democracy alone that distinguished heritage must be protected and continued.