For weeks, I’ve listened to arguments about the press ahead of Leveson’s damning report today. It’s depressing, but not surprising, how quick people on all sides of the debate have been to reach judgements about the report, which appears at first glance to be thoughtful, proportionate and measured.
During the hearing, we’ve heard sickening tales of people traduced by media misconduct. It shouldn’t be forgotten how people like the McCanns, the Dowlers and Christopher Jefferies were treated at times when their lives were already under huge strain. Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Charlotte Church (who was on Question Time tonight) have sounded at times like they are speaking for the country when calling for independent regulation of the press. It was painful to see experienced tabloid journalists Trevor Kavanagh and Nevile Thurlbeck speak on Channel 4 News tonight about the importance of a free media. Surely noone disagrees with this. But their performance tonight suggested that they don’t get what’s happening around them, or what they need to do to deal with it.
There are surely some undeniable truths even the former News of the World hack Paul McMullan (he who said ‘privacy is for paedophiles’ at the inquiry) can agree with.
1. Self-regulation has failed. The Press Complaints Commission has been a dismal advocate for an upright and fair press in this country. It is too slow to act and too often offers scant remedy for serious errors and misconduct which cause complainants great damage and distress. Other professions like medicine or law have tough regulators. Print media should accept that its time has come for some of the same.
2. Great journalism will live on. Leveson highlighted examples of superb investigative journalism which has taken place in Britain. The Guardian’s breaking of the phone hacking story, in the face of denial from News International and a dismissive Met, was testament to the profession at its best. These investigations are expensive, time-consuming and take courage and judgement to execute. Tightening up bad practice to stop some of the horrors aired at the inquiry is not going to stop these investigations. The press would, in my view, still be able to carry out such work.
3. The press could learn from PR. The public is ready for change. We don’t buy newspapers in the numbers that we used to and social media and online journalism is increasingly influential. Trust in the press has fallen massively. This should send a signal to newspapers to change their approach, but the response of the tabloids to the phone hacking scandal has been flat-footed and aggressive. Their strategy of denial, rather than saying sorry and setting out how they intended to rebuild trust, failed. How would The Sun have reacted if a bank or public body responded in the way News International did to the phone hacking allegations?
The media has a chance to grasp an opportunity here, change for the better and create an industry we can be proud of. It needs to catch the mood and demonstrate that it’s willing to change. It’s a long way back after today. As a supporter of a free and responsible press, I hope it can be achieved.