By Angela Phillips
As cross party talks on press reform enter a critical phase, the editors are, at last, breaking ranks. Editors of the Financial Times, The Guardian and the Independent have finally understood that they do not have to stand shoulder to shoulder with press barons whose only real interest in press freedom is as a fig-leaf with which to cover unethical behaviour.
Today (Tuesday March 12) they are meeting to discuss a way forward to break the legislative log-jam. They are minded to accept legal underpinning of a regulator in return for the considerable protections offered to them via the Defamation Bill. But they may already be too late, because talks already underway are rumoured to be heading for reforms that are very far from those that Leveson intended.
Media Reform has said at every turn that the editors of the serious press have everything to gain from a system that provides protection to real journalism while offering accessible redress for those people who have been damaged by irresponsible reporting. It is very hard indeed to see what took them so long, but at least The Guardian has the grace to admit that the amendments to the Defamation Bill have been effective in forcing them to think again. Last night’s editorial said: “The derailing of parliamentary bills through Leveson amendments is clumsy and blunt – but it is forcing the issue into the open where it belongs.”
The two things that have forced the editors to break ranks have been the suggestion of a Royal Charter, which could been amended at will by ministers without the need for a parliamentary vote, and the possibility of losing the Defamation Bill that had been quietly making its way through Parliament with no fanfare at all.
We predicted in February that the introduction of a Royal Charter: “could well turn out to be the stroke of genius which unites the media reform movement and the news media — in opposing it.” Instead, it has split the press. The editors of the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent are well aware that a Royal Charter that is not underpinned by legislation could be positively dangerous to press freedom, while the rest seem too blinded by their prejudices against legislation to understand quite what they are endorsing.
But it is the Defamation Bill amendments that clinched it. Had the Defamation Bill been won without amendment, one of the best possible means of persuading the editors to accept media reform would have been entirely lost. As Media Reform has said from the outset, a public interest defence should be the central plank in any reforms – not only to safeguard press freedom, but as a means of getting editors on board.
Years of failure have demonstrated that the tabloid press will not behave well just out of a desire to be ‘good chaps’. The fiercely competitive nature of the national newspaper market means that they are under continual pressure to descend into the gutter where they seem to believe their audience resides. Reforms will help to maintain standards by making it harder for the newspapers to undercut one another in their pursuit of sensation. The people who stand to gain the most from this change will be journalists themselves, who won’t be left with the choice of resignation as the only way of avoiding assignments that they find morally repugnant.
We at Media Reform are one hundred per cent in favour of press freedom, but we believe it should be used to hold power to account – not as a means of traducing people who are unable to defend themselves.
Angela Phillips is the Ethics Chair of Media Reform and a senior lecturer in Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London.