We know that there is broad-based support for real media reform but (for obvious reasons) this is not being reflected by the press. This is why it’s vitally important that voters engage with their MPs on this issue – it’s only through direct contact that this support will be made tangible to our politicians.
Talking to your MP can be daunting, especially if they don’t agree with you! If they aren’t supportive, just remember that those are the most important conversations for us to be having – and you may be having an influence even if it doesn’t seem so at the time. The most important message your MP needs to hear is that you care about media reform and you want real change. Personal stories always have a lot of impact, so do give examples of the media’s behaviour that have made you angry or unhappy.
You don’t need to talk about policy in that much detail – if they ask you a question you can’t answer, you can always say that you’ll think about it and get back to them. Try and note down the main points of the meeting so we get an idea of their position and we can help you respond to them in writing. Ultimately, it’s not your responsibility to write policy for them, it’s their responsibility to represent you and defend the interests of their constituents. The central question they need to address is “what are you going to do to make the media accountable to ordinary people?” – and it’s up to them to convince you that they have a satisfactory answer. They work for you, after all.
Some guidance on how you might answer some common questions about our proposals are below:
1. Effective, independent press regulation backed by law
Self-regulation of the press has failed, allowing criminal and unethical behaviour to become the norm in many newsrooms. We need a regulator which is independent both of proprietors and politicians which can challenge this culture and give ordinary people protection and redress.
Your MP says: ‘I can’t support state regulation of the press.’
Nobody wants the state deciding what gets printed in newspapers. We are not asking for ‘state regulation’ of the press, but a regulator which is independent of both Government and the media industry and which is capable of enforcing the Editor’s code. This is why it must have an underpinning in law – so that media owners and editors can’t control it, and so it has ‘teeth’, e.g. the power to levy fines.
Your MP says: ‘A statutory regulator will limit freedom of speech.’
There is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech – we can’t libel, defame, or incite racial hatred. Self-regulation of the press has shown itself to be ineffective at maintaining a proper balance between freedom of expression with other rights such as privacy. Statutory-backed regulation of the press has long existed in countries such asFinland, which regularly tops the international tables on press freedom.
Your MP says: ‘Nobody wants it – just look at the papers!’
Several recent polls have shown strong public support for an independent regulator backed by law – 77% in a poll conducted by Demos/the Carnegie Trust, and 78% in a Hacked Off/Yougov poll. The fact that most newspapers are ignoring this point of view, is yet another example of there being more to ‘freedom of expression’ than what is published by the press.
2. The promotion of a plurality of voices by placing limits on media ownership
The ownership of UK newspapers is highly concentrated – 50% of UK newspaper circulation is in the hands of just 2 companies, and 75% of is in the hands of 4 companies (News Corp, DMGT, Trinity Mirror and Northern and Shell). This is particularly problematic in the UK as we tend to get our news from national papers, rather than local or regional ones. We propose a legal limit on the amount of the press (and other media) that can owned by any individual or company. While there are debates about where the cap should be set, what matters is the principle of having limits which break up some of the largest concentrations of media power.
Your MP says: ‘Newspapers aren’t the most important news source’.
While it’s true that most people get most of their news from TV, newspapers are still extremely influential, particularly in setting the broader news agenda and deciding what is ‘newsworthy’. Politicians clearly care what newspapers say, and the Leveson Inquiry heard many examples of media barons using their power to influence politics.
Your MP says: ‘Our competition laws are enough’.
The reason concentration is so high is because no major newspaper acquisition has been refused in the last 46 years. As Nick Clegg said at the Leveson Inquiry, ‘You could drive a coach and horses through our competition laws’.
Your MP says: ‘My party can’t support this’.
Media plurality has support across the political spectrum – at the Leveson Inquiry we heard statements in favour of ownership limits from John Major, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. Breaking up concentrations of power is not an issue of left or right, but a question of democracy.
Your MP says: ‘Nobody cares about this’.
A poll by Yougov/IPPR in May 2012 found that 73% of the public support limits on the overall proportion of theUK media a single person can own, and 76% want fixed limits on newspaper ownership.
3. A strong public interest defence
Journalists need to be freer than they currently are to produce news that is clearly in the public interest. They should have more scope than is currently allowed in law to investigate people in position of influence and whose conduct clearly impacts on the lives of others. That would include the freedom to pursue MPs, large corporations and those involved in criminal activity.
Your MP says: ‘Surely journalists have too much power – isn’t that the problem we’re trying to solve?’
No. For example, in 2008, the United Nations issued a damning critique of English libel law, stating that the ‘practical application of the law of libel has served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest’.
Your MP says: ‘We can’t define the public interest’.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has just produced a set of guidelines on the public interest to be used in cases involving the media and there is no reason why a firm interpretation of the public interest, rooted in law, cannot be developed to guarantee that investigative journalism can continue to exist. The biggest threat to investigative journalism is not from independent regulation containing a public interest defence but from existing libel laws that need to be reformed and from declining budgets for investigative journalism itself.
4. A conscience clause for journalists
Journalists are often asked to pursue stories that they feel uncomfortable about. They should not be forced to produce material which breaks the letter or the spirit of existing codes of practice.
Your MP says: ‘Why can’t journalists exercise their conscience without special help from the law?’
A recent survey found that half of UK journalists feel that economic pressures are undermining the quality of their work whilst the vast majority think their highest responsibility is to their conscience. Editors, however, have long been reluctant to include a conscience clause in journalists’ contract of employment or in the PCC’s code of conduct. Contractual protection against dismissal will enhance the prospects for accurate and ethical journalism.