We wouldn’t want to shackle the press. Not us. So when, over the weekend, the Free Speech Network asked: “If the press was shackled would any of this ever have happened?” – and juxtaposed the question with six famous newspaper scoops – we were compelled to find out. Read on to find out how the proposals of Media Reform match up with the examples the FSN provides.
When the Daily Mail accused five men of murdering Stephen Lawrence, they gambled that they wouldn’t get sued for libel. But a libel action wouldn’t have been any more likely under any of the regulatory regimes currently suggested. If anything, they were in more danger under the current regime. Under our proposals, the five could have demanded a right of reply. But it seems unlikely that they would have taken up the option. 1-0.
2. ‘MP WHO CLAIMED £16,000 FOR MORTGAGE THAT DID NOT EXIST’
The proverbial example of a public interest story. We know how it happened, and we support a statutory public interest defence that would protect journalists from prosecution for breaches of the law pursued in the course of scoops like this.
But we oppose the payment of money to sources because we think it’s a dangerous practice. In our Briefing Paper on Ethics last November, we wrote: “it is the journalist’s job to ask questions and collect information, but not to wield a chequebook to encourage others to commit wrongdoing.”
There’s a debate to be had about these kind of practices, especially where they might lead to important stories. As it is, we believe that journalists should be prevented from engaging in them. We hope that the source – who was clearly motivated by some measure of altruism – would have agreed to give over the information for free, in true whistleblower style. But we’ll call this a point to the Free Press Network. 1-1.
3. ‘CABINET MINISTER: POLICE ARE PLEBS’
There is nothing proposed in any versions of regulation that would prevent this story from being printed. It’s clearly of public interest, and there’s no question of privacy. Moreover, it was gathered through uncontroversial means – i.e. talking to outraged sources. It’s absurd to suggest it couldn’t be covered under any of the regulatory schemes proposed. 2-1.
4. ‘THE TAX AVOIDERS’
Once again, this story is squarely in the public interest. Indeed, it’s exactly the kind of journalism the Media Reform plans aim to protect. Even if the Times had broken laws to get at the information, the Public Interest Defence we propose would have shielded them from prosecution, let alone from privacy complaints. In short, this story would receive more protection under our plans than it ever did in the past. 3-1.
5. ‘MY AFFAIR: BY PREZZA’
This is a tricky one. Since the source for this story was a disgruntled boyfriend, there was certainly no wrongdoing behind the scenes. But an affair is clearly a private matter, and any editor would have to consider the balance of privacy and public interest. Only if the scales tipped decisively in favour of the latter would this story be published.
Some would argue that the behaviour of a serving minister is always a matter of ‘public interest’. Others would say that what happens between two consenting adults is their own business. In this case, the story was also about Prescott’s potential misuse of public funds and privileges – an angle that would factor in to any public interest calculation.
All that said, any of the proposed regulation schemes – including that mooted by the PCC – could lead to an editor being called to account for this story. Indeed, Prezza announced at the time that he intended to complain to the PCC about a deal between his ex-lover, Tracy Temple, and the Mail on Sunday. So the story was already risky and always would be. 4-1.
6. ‘THREE INQUIRIES INTO HACKING CLAIMS AS NEW VICTIMS EMERGE’
We’ll be frank. It is impossible to see how, under any of the suggested regimes, this would not have been published; it breaks no laws and crosses no ethical boundaries. It is clearly in the public interest and is the stuff that real journalism is made of.
Final score: 5-1.