In his 1989 MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh, just a few months after launching his four Sky channels, Rupert Murdoch launched an astonishingly ignorant attack on British television journalism. Having warned about the evils of “less than independent, neutered journalism” from broadcasters which are subject to regulatory scrutiny, he then turned the real-life evidence of British broadcasting upside down: “I cannot imagine a British Watergate, or a British Irangate, being pursued by the BBC or ITV with the vigour that the US networks did.”
In fact, precisely the opposite was true. Not only was it the Washington Post rather than the American networks which had relentlessly pursued the Watergate scandal, but in Britain it was ITV – regulated at the time by the Independent Broadcasting Authority – which had established an enviable record of hard-hitting investigative journalism.
It had been instrumental in exposing two miscarriages of justice following IRA bombings, ensuring that both the “Guildford Four” and “Birmingham Six” cases had been reopened as a direct result of evidence of police malpractice gathered by ITV programmes.
And Murdoch could hardly have been unaware of the massive investigative operation into the killings of three alleged IRA operatives in Gibraltar three years earlier for the ITV programme Death on the Rock: his own Sunday Times had been running a systematic campaign to discredit the TV company’s witnesses under its editor, Andrew Neil, who was sitting right next to him throughout his speech.
In the ensuing 22 years, British television has regularly demonstrated an independence and robustness in challenging authority with well-resourced, highly professional and committed watchdog journalism. ITV’s appetite may have waned, at least until very recently. But both the BBC and Channel 4, each in their different ways subject to statutory regulation, have continued to support and invest in journalism which holds governments, public authorities, corporations and powerful individuals to account through strands such as Dispatches, Unreported World, and Panorama, as well as through news analysis programmes such as Newsnight, Channel 4 News and the Today programme.
How, then, do we explain the constant refrain from those opposed to any kind of independent regulation of the press that it would, inexorably, lead us down the path of authoritarian state censorship? Why have we heard both Hungary and Zimbabwe quoted as the inevitable end-points of any attempt to impose a more rigorous regulatory framework on the press?
And how does Paul Dacre justify his frequent apocalyptic warnings about “allowing the corrupt and the crooked to sleep easily in their beds” should we dare to introduce a stronger regime for preventing those egregious intrusions of privacy that most of our tabloids have indulged in over the last ten years – not just phone hacking and stealing confidential information but now, it appears, stalking?
Britain’s broadcasting tradition tells us that these arguments are demonstrably false. They are being advanced for one simple reason: not to promote the kinds of corruption-busting authority-defying journalism that all good democrats wish to see, but to protect the diet of sex, sensationalism and vindictive scandal-mongering which today drives large sections of our tabloid press. Many of these newspapers prefer the journalism of the Colisseum to the journalism of accountability. And yet, with breathtaking hypocrisy, their editors and columnists deploy arguments around democratic freedom to justify their personal vendettas.
Popular journalism does not have to be like this. But most of today’s tabloid reporting is far removed from the kind of impertinent, anti-elitist, populist reporting that once underpinned our mass circulation newspapers. More importantly, it is far removed from the customs and practices of British television journalism which has, from the very beginning, been subject to a statutory regime that has acted as a guarantor of high professional standards.
It was under this regime that Carlton Television was punished in 1998 for its powerful, award-winning documentary The Connection which purported to show how drugs were being routinely smuggled into the UK from Columbia. When large parts of the programme were exposed by the Guardian as faked, there was no sweeping under the carpet or lame rebuke from a regulatory body in hock to the television companies. There was a humiliating on-screen prime-time apology from Carlton who returned the eight awards won by the programme and refunded the 14 foreign broadcasters who had bought it.
And the disciplinary coup de grace was an unprecedented £2 million fine by the Independent Television Commission which described the programme as “a wholesale breach of trust between programme makers and viewers”. The message to any other television company which contemplated that kind of wholesale deception was unequivocal: it is unacceptable newsroom practice, and sanctions will be punitive. It has not happened again.
Those who try to rubbish any comparison with the broadcast media on the basis that this is an argument for a government licensed press miss the point. Neither licensing nor frontline statutory regulation such as Ofcom are necessary for proper implementation of the PCC code of conduct, nor for instilling in our newspapers the kinds of newsroom practices and cultures that are routine in broadcasting.
What is essential, however, is that any self-regulatory system incorporates the kinds of investigatory powers, punitive sanctions and compulsory membership that have produced a television journalism culture which takes its professional codes of conduct seriously. Paul Dacre himself made much the same point to the second Leveson seminar. This time, however, we have to support self-regulation with a backstop, independent body with the legitimacy of Parliament behind it to ensure that the grand promises of reform are genuinely fulfilled.
It is not a comfortable option for those who distrust any kind of parliamentary intervention in the printed press, but decades of cynical disregard for codes of conduct – as well as new imperatives of accountability which are commonplace in every other area of public and professional life – now demand something beyond pure self-regulation. Britain’s television journalism has a reputation for being robust, independent, ethical and trusted. It demonstrates unequivocally that a thoughtfully constructed, responsibly implemented and genuinely independent regulatory regime can actually liberate the best watchdog journalism rather than restrain it.
The vast majority of working journalists would welcome a framework which genuinely protects fairness, integrity and high ethical standards. Television has shown us the way, and Parliament now has a unique opportunity to flex its democratic muscles to promote the best journalism rather than cowering yet again before the corporate press bullies who want to preserve the worst. Let’s hope the Leveson Inquiry gives it the ammunition.