Comment: We can’t be trusted? Neither can you

When it comes to maintaining a free press, there’s no such thing as black and white.

By Alex Stevenson

Today, of all days, it’s especially easy to make mincemeat out of the nation’s dissembling hacks. The Commons’ culture, media and sport committee has published a report laying, in no uncertain terms, into large swathes of the press for their slapdash approach.

It’s now clear tabloid journalists dispatched to Portugal to cover the disappearance of Madeleine McCann spent far too much time exaggerating the importance of even the most tenuous rumours. The end effect was irresponsible and nauseating. The media frenzy which followed led to what MPs called “inexcusable lowering of press standards”.

Then we come to the Guardian’s allegations about the culture of phone-tapping at the News of the World red-top. Claims that wrongdoing spread far beyond the two men jailed have never quite been established, but it’s clear which side of the divide MPs writing today’s report are on. Barbed comments about the paper’s “collective amnesia” prompt feelings of injustice and frustration, not respect, for those at the tabloid.

It seems journalists are just like everyone else. We’re like politicians, whose enthusiasm for policy implementation occasionally sees them trample over people’s civil liberties. We’re like the police, whose zealous pursuit of law and order occasionally sees them trample over people. Literally.

Journalists, desperate to fulfil their role in holding the world and his wife to account, sometimes forget that they have their own responsibilities, too.

The difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is, in this case, a very real one. Society has managed to set up rigorous oversight mechanisms for everyone else. It’s much more dangerous when it comes to issues relating to free speech.

“If you don’t want a press that is regulated by the state, you’ve got to be very careful what you wish for.”

That was the warning delivered by the Press Complaints Commission’s (PCC) Baroness Peta Buscombe this morning. She was responding to MPs’ calls for the PCC to be strengthened, perhaps giving it responsibility for overseeing standards as well.

The PCC should be renamed the Press Complaints and Standards Commission, they recommend, “reflecting its role as a regulator”. It should be given powers to fine, to suspend the printing of offending publications to one issue. It should even be more “proactive”.

These proposals are as alarming as they are utterly misguided. MPs on the committee are doing what MPs do best: identifying a problem and inventing a new structure to make it go away. But could journalists really be free to do their job – to uncover wrongdoing, to expose dishonesty – with an arm of the state probing and interfering?

Every so often, in the House of Commons, MPs occasionally crane their necks upwards and peer into the press gallery. Some look worried, especially if they have just said something stupid. Others are merely bored, gazing curiously to see which journalists might be taking an interest.

The habit is a bad one. They should mind their own business, for interfering in the way proposed today is only likely to undermine the ancient freedoms on which the mother of parliaments in which they sit is based. It’s easy to slip into this sort of rhetoric. But in the last 12 months alone issues of civil liberties and freedom of speech have been raised to critical levels.

Last year lawyers representing Trafigura sought to prevent a question about its dumping of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast being asked in parliament. MPs are clear, here, about the importance of limiting super-injunctions so they do not fetter the fundamental rights of the press. This was an instance when the exposure of wrongdoing threatened parliamentary freedoms as well as press freedoms. It would not have come to light without good journalism. Let’s not forget that.

The Trafigura case raises another important point: the nonsense of ‘self-regulation’. Don’t be fooled by the idea that editors turn down juicy scoops on narrow points of moral principle. Instead they spend hours and hours of every week in meetings with their crack team of lawyers, taking advice on whether they can get away with publishing this story or that without exposing themselves to a multimillion pound lawsuit. Under the present system it’s the lawyers who regulate the press.

There is no doubt this has what the textbooks call a ‘chilling effect’. The Trafigura story had not been revealed by at least one publication precisely because of the fear of a prohibitive legal action being launched.

There’s another threat, too: the development of privacy laws through the courts is the current battleground of choice for disgruntled editors. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop told the committee during its evidence session he was the “most sued man in Britain” – but that even he had spotted the dangers of developing privacy laws. “Straightaway, as soon as the celebrities make a bridgehead, the rich and powerful come in behind,” he warned.

It’s true, as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said, that recent court judgements have “dangerously tipped the balance away from press freedom”. And the huge legal costs involved in fighting any kind of case through the courts means only a small handful of the biggest publications can afford to even consider revealing hugely controversial material.

That’s no reason to complain, though, for the regulation of the courts is surely preferable to the domineering oversight of a state-backed watchdog. In his latest book What Price Liberty?, historian Ben Wilson avoids a triumphalist explanation of Britain’s glorious code of civil liberties. Instead, in his view, the fight to retain civil liberties has to be refought by every generation. Some have met with greater success than others.

Journalists, like everyone else, are capable of acting wrongly. But the central importance of our purpose means we should be protected from a kind of regulation which risks interference from the state.

Instead it should be left to the courts to deal with the inevitable slip-ups. Of course we can’t be trusted, but neither can anyone else. They’ll get away with it if the MPs backing today’s report get their way.

The views expressed in’s comment pages are not necessarily those of the website or its owners.