By Angela Phillips
As four more journalists are arrested
in connection with phone hacking it is worth remembering that it is commercial pressures, not great journalism, that brought us to this place.
Let us be clear: these arrests are in nobody’s interest. The fact that the police feel free to put the press under surveillance
should be a matter of enormous concern to all of us. This is not what we expect in a democratic society. Democracy requires journalists who are able to work, free from interference from the state.
But that is precisely why the Leveson reforms are so desperately required: they should provide a regulator strong enough to protect the press from its own worst instincts and strong enough also to protect it from the worst instincts of others.
In any industry where there is fierce competition (such as there is among British national newspapers), there is the ever-present fear of being undercut by new entrants into the market. This market disruption is the means by which capitalism renews itself. However it cannot do so without casualties and that is why, in a civilised democracy, we do not allow this process to run rampant. We use regulatory machinery to control it.
Newspapers across the world are suffering the most seismic market disruption since the introduction of television. Proprietors are seeing their share value collapse, and there have been massive lay-offs and closures. The remaining publications are desperate to maintain market share and hold their businesses as steady as they can while the market shakes.
For most, the way forward has been to cut staff numbers and rely ever more heavily on the research short-cuts that technology allows them. The hacking of mobile phones was the easiest and fastest way to pick up celebrity gossip and when it became clear that their own regulatory body was not interested in preventing them, it was open season.
Just as Lance Armstrong ruined cycle racing for anyone unwilling to use drugs, so the News of the World made it impossible for anyone to compete with them for stories unless they also hacked phones. What the tabloids needed (just as cycling did) was an honest regulator ready to step in and knock heads together as soon as it became apparent that illegal methods were being employed to gather material. Unfortunately the PCC (which no longer regards itself as a regulator) was simply too weak to stand up to the press barons and so the scandals were allowed to run unchecked.
Just as honest cyclists need a regulator to protect them, so do honest journalists. That regulator should be free from both the Government and the proprietors. That is why a Royal Charter is not the right vehicle. It would allow the press to be interfered with in the future by ministerial fiat. That is why it is essential also that the regulator is entirely independent – to prevent the biggest and strongest of the media barons from calling the shots.
Some news organisations realise this. That is why the Guardian, Independent Financial Times and now also the Mirror Group
have broken ranks with the rest of the industry
to call for a compromise solution which would allow for legal underpinning to ensure independence.
We have not got what we really wanted from the Leveson inquiry but we can still retrieve something. Lobby your MP to vote for amendments that will provide legal underpinning for a regulator to ensure that it is free of ministerial interference in perpetuity. Lobby also for a truly independent regulator that has the power to prevent the press from damaging itself. That is the only way to preserve press freedom and protect real journalism.
Angela Phillips is the Ethics Chair of Media Reform and a senior lecturer in Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London.