The deal agreed by the three main parties undoubtedly heralds a new age for the British media. Some newspaper editors and Tory MPs have compared the new restrictions to Putin’s Russia or African dictatorships, the death of a free press independent of government interference. Yet all the deal includes is a plan to commission a Royal Charter, setting up a new, independent regulator (one of which we already have; it’s called the Press Complaints Commission, and it’s not very effective) which will have the power to direct apologies and fines up to £1 million. In other words, it can tell newspapers who have printed inaccurate stories about people to apologise on the front page, if it was front-page news, instead of buried at the back in small print. It essentially amounts to common decency and is something already practised in France (not Zimbabwe). This Royal Charter is not enforced by statute but a new law will mean that it cannot be changed by Parliament unless they have a two-thirds majority, i.e. if most people agree that it’s not working.
Their deal has completely overlooked the real problem; victims of phone-hacking do not just want an apology when the damage has already been done, but satisfactory assurance that the newspapers don’t violate their individual privacy in the first place. Phone-hacking is a criminal offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, as it counts as unauthorised interception, and so the courts should use this power to punish perpetrators appropriately. This is all that victims of phone-hacking really want enforced; a potential prison sentence would make journalists think twice about whether it’s worth hacking someone’s phone or e-mails for a page 10 by-line. Because, at the end of the day, editors just want stories to run and they are more than willing to bat an eyelid to where the story has come from; telling editors they might have to pay a fine or issue an apology, should they be found out, is not too much of a preventative. Would you tell a drug dealer to ‘apologise’ if somebody died of an overdose? No, you’d arrest them. That is what’s supposed to happen to criminals.
Yet the deeper issue is whether journalists should be deemed ‘criminals’ for doing their job, i.e. making the public aware of things that are going on which they wouldn’t otherwise know. I went to see the then-Editor of the Times, James Harding, speak on the issue of press regulation at Oxford University Media Society in May 2012 (he resigned that December). He led negotiations between editors and No. 10 about how to create a reformed press system in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. To us, he said that we have more to fear from secrecy than we have to gain from privacy; that there should be laws protecting journalists so that they can do their jobs properly, not laws penalising them. He claimed, then, that journalists (and their editors) had to deem what was in the ‘public interest’ and, if it they decided something was, should be allowed to pursue the truth about this issue.
The reason why editors are so angry about the new regulations is that they believe the decision about ‘public interest’ should lie exclusively with them. The day that politicians decide what we should or should not know will be a very dark day for this democracy; that is undeniably true. For example, I would consider it in my interest to know that a leading MP was having an affair, if he claimed to be a defender of traditional family values and wanted tax breaks for married couples, but he would claim his right of privacy. When politicians are hypocrites, I want the press to tell me about it so that I can make an informed voting choice. I don’t want journalists to fear prison sentences if they facilitate that.
The problem, then, is us and what we like reading about: human interest stories. The problem is that we don’t just want to know when politicians are being hypocrites, which makes the free press fundamental to a functional democracy; we want to know what’s happened to the McCanns, who was the last person to contact Milly Dowler, whether Hugh Grant’s having a baby and with whom. The latter claimed, as an advocate of the Hacked Off campaign, that he had been a victim of “lazy reporting” and that the press had begun to work through intimidation and bullying tactics. We are hungrier for information about people’s private lives than we have ever been; sometimes we are satiated by celebrity tweets and gossip magazines but often they just fuel our desire for more. Modern technology, whilst on the one hand adding a whole new dimension to the free press with independent news sites and blogs, has undoubtedly threatened major newspapers; as readership declines, so they become more desperate for juicier stories. The press responds to what they deem to be the ‘public interest’ and so we have damaged the free press ourselves, by undermining people’s rights to privacy with our nosy avarice.
Blogs, social media sites and small publishers of special interest stories will not have to sign up to the new regulating body, perhaps because it is virtually impossible to monitor them, even though they violate ‘privacy’ as much as any other journalists. I just can’t help feeling sorry for major newspapers in what has become a vicious battle to know more intimate information faster and faster. The Leveson inquiry and the Hacked Off campaign have been an important signal to the journalistic world that engaging in criminal activity (i.e. phone-hacking) is not an acceptable way to deal with the modern difficulties of competition. Major newspapers need to stick to what they alone do best; conducting high-profile interviews, providing balanced, informed opinions on a variety of issues and publishing the very best voices on topics of foreign affairs, culture and business, taking the time to gather information legitimately. If they disregard the gross gossip culture that’s rotting away modern society, they have a much better hope of surviving and will have little to fear from the new regulator.