Phone tapping revelations shows lack of press accountability

In Debate on July 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm

The latest allegations in the News Group phone tapping scandal highlight the chronic lack of accountability in the press.

Not accountable to editors

The editors in the case were keen to assert that they knew nothing of the activities of the individuals involved in phone tapping. Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail (which submitted 952 transactions from 58 journalists through Operation Motorman) told the select committee: “I will be very honest with you, I had not been aware they had been that extensive”.

He went on to say that the practice of paying for data of this sort had stopped and both newspapers and the PCC had ensured proper training so that journalists complied with the law. “I cannot think of more rigorous things we could have done to ensure that all abuses were completely [stopped]”.

The current system of press self-regulation is built on the premise that editors are responsible for the activities of their newspaper. As Peter Hill told the select committee ‘I reprimanded myself because I was responsible’ (for the coverage of the McCann case). However, as Paul Dacre told the committee, “I read the features and the commentary and a lot of the news stories” and “I read more words of my paper than most editors” but it is not possible to read all of the coverage produced by a newspaper.

Not accountable to the PCC

The Press Complaints Commission is not constituted to undertake investigations of this kind. Its constitution establishes it only as a body to resolve and adjudicate on complaints about the code:

“The primary function of the Commission shall be to consider, and adjudicate, conciliate and resolve or settle by reference to the Press Code of Practice . . . complaints from the public of unjust or unfair treatment by newspapers . . .

“It shall also be the function of Commission to consider and pronounce on issues relating to the Code of Practice which the Commission, in its absolute discretion considers to be in the public interests.”

It has a small staff, with no special powers to do this sort of investigation, a small budget (£1.8m) and its purpose is to resolve and adjudicate on complaints against newspapers regarding possible breaches of the code. The PCC was simply unable to investigate this affair with the same rigour as other regulators, even though its investigation was more comprehensive than most of its activities.

Should not be accountable to government

It would be too great a limitation on freedom of expression if government were to regulate the press. The thought of a government regulator being able to fine and jail journalists for investigative reporting is undemocratic. Yet the failings identified in this case give ammunition to those who support more government regulation.

Limited accountability to the law

Everyone is accountable to the law but it is preferable that journalists have as much freedom as possible. The Data Protection Act makes it an offence to gain unauthorised access to confidential databases but carries a public interest defence. However, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (which related to phone tapping) carries no such defence.

Newspapers are already fearful of the growth of media lawyers and the emerging case law around privacy. Any judicial oversight or investigations of newspaper practices could be deeply damaging to fundamental freedoms. The investigation by the Metropolitan Police may be necessary as the law takes its course. However, it is not appropriate for the police to get involved in the business of how newspapers are produced and self-regulation ought to act as a barrier to this sort of action.

As the Media Standards Trust has warned:

“Given the success of recent cases, the legal challenges and precedents will increase, unless the system of regulation is improved to give complainants more effective remedy against invasions of privacy.”

Not accountable to readers

Only two newspapers have independent readers ombudsman, the Guardian and the Observer. No other national newspaper thinks it necessary to appoint someone to represent the interests of the reader to the newspaper. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Media Standards Trust at the end of last year found that 70% of the public believe there are “far too many instances of people’s privacy being invaded by newspaper journalists”. The same poll revealed that 75% of the public now believe ‘newspapers frequently publish stories they know are inaccurate”. Fewer people are buying newspapers each year and few people trust journalists. That would not appear to be sufficient incentive for newspapers to change their behaviour.

Accountable to the profession?

Cases like these are a compelling reason for self-regulation. The difficult balances between privacy and the public interest can be discussed internally, amongst experts and independent representatives. Those in the industry who want to ensure high standards can ensure that all adhere to a clear code of practice. And those that break the rules can be embarrassed in front of their peers. Yet it hasn’t happened in this case. The failure of the industry to hold a newspaper to account weakens the position of supporters of self-regulation.

The importance of reform

The press can continue on the current path of low trust in newspapers with the widespread opinion that journalists do not seek to tell the truth, declining readership, economic crisis and growing intervention from the courts.

Alternatively they can use the opportunity to demonstrate why journalism matters; why the skills of journalism make it more valuable than a opinionated blog; why it’s vital to democracy and why high standards in journalism are essential to being able to entertain, inform and investigate on behalf of their readers.

Self-regulation remains preferable for the press. But it must be made to work or else it will be by-passed by those whose interests are better served by the courts and those who would gladly see a less free press.


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