By Angela Phillips
Today’s deal on the Leveson reforms should provide a regulator strong enough to protect the press from its own worst instincts.
It will be independent of both Parliament and the proprietors, ending a long line of Tory peers who have presided over the PCC and protected the interests of their friends in the press.
It will also have a code committee composed of at least one third ordinary journalists – a big step forward towards recognizing that the interests of ordinary journalists are not, and have never been, identical with the interests of the editors who direct their work.
Those organizations that choose to join this self-regulatory body will be offered some protection from the high costs of court action and that is as it should be. By signing up to independent self-regulation, news organizations should be offered a degree of protection. This is an important recognition of the fact that journalists can, do and will always, make mistakes , but that when they do so they should apologize and make amends to those they have wronged.
The Media Reform Coalition has never been in favour of punitive action against journalists. Indeed we represent journalists – those journalists who genuinely believe that their job is to hold power to account. We have all along looked for regulation that balances the needs of those who are wronged in the press with the needs of the press to do their work un-constrained by the fear of retribution.
We now have the first part of the legislation on the statute books. We look forward very soon to the second part: the passing of the Defamation Bill. This amendment will provide much needed protection for journalists themselves, by adding a clause to the law that allows them to use a public interest defense in future libel actions.
This is a hugely important change in the law which will have important consequences, allowing journalists to investigate wrong-doing without fear provided they can demonstrate that their work is in the public interest. This is the true guarantor of press freedom. The sound and fury over the last few months has been the anxiety of a press that earns its money through spreading misery and fear. The time has come for them to re-train their guns on the people in power.
Together these two pieces of legislation will move our media laws forward, bringing them into line with a modern reality in which news organizations have vast power in comparison to most ordinary individuals. At the same time, a small number of very powerful people and organizations have had unreasonable powers in relation to journalists. At last the balance is shifting, giving journalists greater rights to snap at the heels of those in power while protecting the innocent from having their lives raked over to increase tabloid profits.
Angela Phillips is the Ethics Chair of Media Reform and a senior lecturer in Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London.