Here’s a key excerpt from last Thursday’s debate at the launch of the so-called “Free Speech Network”, a new mouthpiece for newspaper proprietors and editors trying to avoid any meaningful outcome from the Leveson Inquiry. What they fear the most, the creation of a new independent regulator underpinned by statute, is now demanded by victims of press harassment and phone hacking, journalists, academic s and 77% of the general public.
The main speaker was Tim Luckhurst, Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent, outlining his pamphlet on press freedom, “Responsibility Without Power”, summarised in the Telegraph yesterday in the form of a long and misguided attack on the aims of Hacked Off. Hacked Off have been denied the opportunity to respond in the same pages. So much for free speech.
The panel at the launch of the Free Speech Network consisted of Luckhurst (anti-statute), John Whittingdale MP (Chair, DCMS Select Committee, anti-statute) and Mick Hume (editor-at-large, Spiked, anti all forms of regulation). So much for balance.
Before the debate got started, organisers turned away the camerawoman who is following Hugh Grant for a fly-on-the-wall documentary for Channel Four. So much for openness.
But the most revealing moments of the evening came when chair John Humphrys probed a gaping hole in the newspaper industry’s argument: If you believe that things have to change, but you opt for more self-regulation, how can you impose a sanction on a paper that decides not to comply?
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Tim Luckhurst: I will say nothing to defend what was done to Milly Dowler or to her parents and family. I will say nothing to defend what was done to Charlotte Church. I will say nothing to defend what was done to Kate and Gerry McCann. And I think it has been good and sanitising that we have talked about these things in public. What I won’t do is take a step from that and the absolute duty to apologise to these people and to ensure that in future journalists don’t behave with such total absence of respect for human dignity… I won’t take that step and then say we need regulation, John.
John Humphrys: Once you’ve used the word ‘duty’, you have to put in that same sentence or that same paragraph ‘obligation’ and therefore ‘regulation’, in the end. If they have an absolute duty not to do the kind of thing they did to those people you mentioned and an absolute duty to apologise for them and promise never to do them again. If they then put two fingers up to you and say, “Well, I hear what you say, but you know, free press innit, Squire,” how do you make them?
Luckhurst: John, I’ve said already that you cannot find a switch which will create a perfectly virtuous press…
Humphrys: Well that’s rhetoric…
Luckhurst: No it’s not, it’s an important point.
Humphrys: Could you just answer that question?
Luckhurst: The problem is that you are looking for a perfect symmetrical answer and there isn’t one. There is just a constant duty for vigilance and there is an important reason for that. When citizens aren’t confident about the independence of news, they don’t turn to better sources, they don’t read better newspapers or go to more reliable things, they believe absolutely anything, they turn to anything. For example, during the Second World War, when people did not believe the BBC in the first months of 1939 because they thought it was being too tightly regulated, they turned to Lord Haw Haw. Nearly fifty per cent of the population tuned in to listen at some point. The danger of allowing state intervention in any form is the public simply won’t believe that what they are being told is the truth.
Humphrys: I’m not sure how that answers the question I just put to you. If those newspapers, having behaved in a way that you find totally unacceptable, then say, “Well yeah, hear what you’re saying but we thought it was alright really, by and large, we’d probably do it again,” how do you make them observe the rules, the duties as you regard as inescapable ? How do you make them do it?
Luckhurst: You subject them to the sanction of their readers’ opinion as Mick (Hume)says…
Humphrys: And if the readers are perfectly happy?
Luckhurst: Then John, we have a problem, don’t we… Because the public are never ever consulted about this. We talk about public interest in which the public are not even consulted…
Humphrys: ….I know I’m being boring here, but you still haven’t answered that point: What do you do, if the papers insist on behaving in a way that you find simply unacceptable, not just not very nice, but not acceptable. How do you make them do it?
Luckhurst: You have a self-regulatory body which has the power to summon journalists and their editors, to ask questions…
Humphrys: Right, so they come along and they say “Mr Dacre, we think, or Mr Whoever-it-is, we think x, y and z and they say, “Yeah, fine, thanks a lot, seeya.”
Luckhurst: Because you have an investigative power, John. You have an investigative power that does not require a complaint from somebody that has previously been aggrieved, but which can be sanctioned by the self-regulatory body itself.
Humphrys: And the ultimate sanction is what?
Luckhurst: .. is powerful fines, big fines, imposed under contract which the papers have an obligation to pay.
Humphrys: Oh, so we have a statutory backstop, because there must be a law – I’m not the lawyer here, obviously – but if you’re going to fine somebody…
Michael McManus (adviser to Lord Hunt): You have recourse in civil law.
Humphrys: You have recourse in civil law…
McManus: But the contract is freely entered into. That’s the difference.
Prof Steve Barnett (Hacked Off Board Director): And you can challenge the contract just as any party to a contract can; and after five years, which is the limit of the contract, then what happens?
Michael McManus: You can judicially review a statute…
Barnett: You can have an authoritarian Government at any time which will impose censorship. I mean, let’s be realistic about this. If you are talking about how a contract works – Richard Desmond, if he does not like the fine that is imposed on him through a contract that he’s signed, he will go to court and he will litigate and he will say, “You don’t have the authority, I challenge this,” and even if he loses, it will be two years down the line. That’s one problem. The other problem is this contract lasts for five years. After five years they all walk away from it. There is nothing to tie them in to the same contract after five years. I am afraid, John (Whittingdale), I appreciate what you are saying, you can hold Parliament over them or Government over them, but as we know with Calcutt, the political will drains away. It’s this moment or it’s never.
Luckhurst: Well then let’s hope it’s never. Because the danger… the danger…
Barnett: The danger is that what you find completely unacceptable, Tim, you’ve said yourself, totally unacceptable, will happen again. I’m afraid you haven’t answered John’s (Humphrys) question. What is to prevent everyone just walking away from this?