NEW ways to regulate the British press have been suggested following a talk by Nick Davies, the renowned journalist and media commentator, at a packed event organised by Bristol NUJ.
Delivering the fourth annual Benn Lecture, now one of the most important events on the Bristol media calendar, Nick Davies called for a genuinely independent body which will take real action when newspapers publish untrue or damaging stories.
You can listen to a podcast of the event here.
Drawing heavily on his much-praised 2008 book Flat Earth News, which documents the decline of journalistic standards, he said the current regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, is failing the public – partly because it is run by the newspaper industry.
“The PCC have proved in spades that you cannot trust the press to regulate itself,” he told an enthusiastic audience of journalists, students and people interested in the media gathered at the Arnolfini in Bristol.
“For the first time in history, we now have a press which harvests people’s private lives in order to sell stories. If we run a story that’s false and damaging, a victim has three courses of action: to write to the editor, sue for libel, or complain to the PCC.
“Letters to the editor are hardly ever published, and libel is a rich man’s law.
“That leaves the Press Complaints Commission, where in ten years 28,000 complaints have been made.
“More than 90 per cent of those complaints were rejected outright on technicalities. Of the 10 per cent which got over the hurdles, only 0.69 per cent were upheld.
“The PCC is structurally corrupt.”
Nick went on to give examples of ‘extraordinary levels of cruelty’ in certain high-profile stories such as those of Max Mosley and Madeleine McCann.
“Journalists will crash over the line in pursuit of a story, and unchecked second-hand material, whether it’s true or not, gets recycled globally within a few days,” he said. “The logic of commercialism has taken over from the logic of journalism.
“If you talk to journalists, they say they believe in a free press. In current circumstances, that’s a bit like a rapist saying he believes in free love.”
Ideas emerging from the discussion which followed Nick’s lecture included the introduction of a new regulator along the lines of Ofcom, which supervises broadcasters with a strict regime demanding balance and accuracy.
“Ofcom has the power, quite draconian, to take a broadcaster’s licence away, and I suspect that’s the only sort of language that newspapers understand,” said former ITV West executive James Garrett.
Others pointed to failures by Ofcom to behave in viewers’ interests. Tim Lezard, journalist and member of the NUJ’s national executive council, said it had behaved disgracefully in allowing the merger of the two ITV regions serving the vast area of the South West.
Allowing journalists to refuse unethical work on the grounds that it broke the NUJ’s code of conduct would help bolster press independence, suggested Tim.
Yes, agreed Nick Davies, but he pointed out that, at present, reporters who attempt to use the code find their careers sidelined.
Mike Jempson, founder of Bristol-based media ethics charity Mediawise, reminded the audience of a plan for press reform proposed by Labour MP Clive Soley in the 1980s.
Soley had called for an independent body which would investigate complaints about newspapers but would also have a second major role – to stand up for press freedom.
Nick Davies welcomed the model, but pointed out that it didn’t offer an answer on how to keep the regulator independent of government or media influence.
The growth of website-based ‘mini-media’, based on particular geographical or subject areas, was encouraging, he said.
Earlier, Nick had kept the audience rapt through a rapid and animated argument, giving an impressively detailed account of how the press has failed the British public.
Politicians and even the police are cowed by the big media proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch, he said, and won’t take them on.
He described the events which led to his newspaper, the Guardian, revealing in July that as many as 5,000 people may have had their phones hacked by private investigators working on behalf of journalists.
Yet the majority of these cases have not been investigated by the police.
The PCC, instead of mounting its own proper inquiry into illegal phone hacking at the News of the World, has whitewashed the affair, instead accusing the Guardian of exaggerated headlines.
Nick also told the shocking story of the Taylor sisters, acquitted of murder after a long-running battle to clear their names, who failed to find redress when years later the Daily Mail published an article under the heading “Why I believe they are murderers”.
The sisters started a libel action but eventually realised they could not afford a court case – then saw the PCC refuse complaints from them and their parents, largely for technical reasons.
Nick Davies parted with a comment on the NUJ, following a question on whether the union has a role to play in press freedom.
“Yes. At its best, the NUJ is very important for journalists,” he said. “It can give them the muscle to stand up to bullying proprietors. The problem is that because most journalists don’t go to union chapel or branch meetings, there are times when the NUJ is run by people who don’t reflect the political views of their members.”
Christina Zaba, the chair of Bristol NUJ who also chaired the lecture, ended by encouraging journalists to get involved with their union to help ensure that it is representative.
The Benn Lecture 2009 took place on Thursday November 26th, 2009 at the Arnolfini, Bristol.
Paul Breeden & Christina Zaba