Speech by Bob Satchwell, Executive Director of the UK Society of Editors, to WAN/IFRA Publish Asica Conference in Bali – April 2012
Contrary to what may be a popular belief in some circles, newspapers in London have not dropped off their honoured perch as some of the best in the world. Indeed I hope that they are as admired as ever as examples to be followed.
British journalists are not a bunch of criminal hooligans working for maverick Mafia godfathers. Similarly, British politicians are not corrupt or seriously tainted by too close association with media owners and neither are the police.
You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise as a result of some of the more lurid and in some cases bizarre behaviour that has been reported. You could also be forgiven for scratching your heads about the apparent fall into disrepute of what was once described as the home of democracy with the mother of parliaments and a most sophisticated and successful media industry.
But first let me draw your attention to a small but important report published last month looking at media freedom and the law across a large part of the world.
“Media freedom and the legislation governing the independent operation of the media vary across the world with starkly contrasting national regimes.”
That’s how the London-based CPU Media Trust – the new name for the Commonwealth Press Union – opened its recent report on the laws that constrain the media across the Commonwealth.
It went on to say that broadly speaking, countries sit in three categories:
a) democratic countries with a mature sense of freedom and plurality in the media;
b) emerging democratic states where demands for democracy and the evolution of a free press are emerging challenges
c) undemocratic states which see an independent press as a major challenge to the government’s power.
As a trustee of the CPU Media Trust I have to declare an interest in the quality and value of the report but you may find it a little strange that I emphasise the issues exposed by the report at the start of a discussion about media credibility in the UK and the lessons to be learned from what has become known as the phone hacking scandal of two thousand and eleven.
The revelations led to the closure of a famous 168-year-old newspaper, an unprecedented series of police and other investigations into press behaviour and the most searching judicial inquiry into media standards and ethics that is being undertaken live on camera in the full glare of publicity.
It is the kind of attention more commonly given to aspects of public life – by that I mean politics and public service. Indeed the level of official scrutiny is greater than that faced by Members of Parliament when their expenses claims were the centre of attention. It is far more searching than the inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq war and more recent allegations of the involvement of UK security services into extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects.
The investigations concern ageing allegations that journalists, or people working for them, listened to messages left on the mobile phones of film stars other celebrities and a small number of politicians and victims of crime. What’s more the number of police officers involved in the criminal investigations is far higher than in the most extensive murder inquiries.
Other inquiries by a distinguished judge and by committees of parliament have been looking at seemingly cosy relationships between media moguls and politicians and senior journalists and the police. Investigations are examining allegations of cover-up of criminal activities in one newspaper group and how journalists have close contacts with public figures and senior police officers.
The debate is about the need for new privacy laws to protect film stars and other celebrities’ rights, the costs of legal actions, the ethics of newsgathering and whether journalism is or should be a closed and controlled profession or a humble but proud craft open to anyone.
So why am I pointing to the CPU report when you were perhaps hoping to hear about a little local difficulty for the press in London?
I don’t want in any way to minimise the ethical and criminal issues raised by the scandal. Nor do I want to underestimate the challenges they raise for the whole of the British media, the police and politicians.
They touch all of the key problems shared by editors and journalists across the world and for that matter politicians whom we hope recognise the importance of a free, unfettered media in any democracy.
By the time I finish I hope I will have at least attempted to identify the more fundamental concerns for the media that have already been given an airing as a result of the revelations about a small part of the British national newspaper industry.
Those concerns involve the economics of a mature and some would argue – wrongly in my view – a dying industry, as well as media ownership and plurality and the ever changing methods of delivering news.
That means they should interest not only all of us as media professionals but hopefully honest politicians and the public who need and deserve a vital, diverse and indeed powerful media.
I don’t pretend to know all or indeed any of the answers but I hope I can at least share some of the questions.
So back to that CPU report launched last month.
The CPU argued that while the primary focus of its report was to look at legislation imposed upon the media by governments, just citing governments as hostile to basic freedoms was too simplistic.
It is of course vital that journalists maintain integrity with balanced, informative and, where necessary, critical coverage. Given the power that the media can undoubtedly achieve or be perceived to achieve, the right to freedom of expression should be tempered with a responsibility to respect ethnic, religious and personal rights.
As I usually put it, editors and journalists should think at least twice before they invade an individual’s privacy or embark on a controversial story, satisfying themselves that they are doing it for the right reasons.
The report emphasised the need for the role of the independent media to be strengthened in the fight against corruption, specifically encouraging investigative and financial journalism, sustaining the role of the press in the electoral process and ensuring that civil society is fully engaged in the democratic process through education and accurate information.
The CPU argues that media freedom is a vital precursor to successful economic growth and social progress. The media provides independent scrutiny of government, judiciary and the executive and holds them to account.
The CPU says that the state often resorts to draconian legislation that creates statutory bodies to restrict the media and it points to the current UK problems that illustrate what happens when there has been a perceived expansion of the influence of the media that has upset a delicate balance.
So there it is. The CPU Media Trust report is as relevant to a mature democracy with a well-developed media as it is to developing nations of the Commonwealth, or elsewhere.
The report compiles a set of ten recommendations showing that governments should be working with the media to encourage self-regulation and establishing codes of conduct to reduce the need for reactionary legislation.
Let me outline just some of the ten recommendations for their relevance to the UK and indeed the rest of the world.
The report urges politicians to actively encourage a free and independent media as a pillar of democracy and to work WITH the media to establish effective regulatory bodies. That implies an agreed partnership not coercion by legislation
And indeed the report says there must be willingness by governments to repeal or revise anachronistic or draconian laws that impinge on the right to freedom of expression and thus a free media.
Licensing of journalists and publications by the state is unacceptable because it creates a chilling effect that leads to self-censorship over fear of the loss of livelihood and perhaps even their liberty. It also undermines journalistic independence that should be at the heart of responsible reporting.
Freedom of information and access to officials and politicians is one of the foundations of a strong media relationship with governments that allows governments to promote their version of events and news, but also enables journalists to base their reports on verifiable facts.
On the other side of the coin the right to freedom of expression also brings responsibilities. Ethical and responsible journalistic standards must be maintained and encouraged through codes of conduct and a willingness to adhere to self-regulation.
But those self-regulatory mechanisms should be seen as the only viable means of regulating the print media, with co-regulation of broadcasting.
The report adds that there should be an increased focus on appropriate training supporting efforts to increase ethical standards and professionalism – which is different from making journalism a profession on a par with medicine or the law.
Finally the report calls for a freedom of expression audit of Commonwealth countries to identify those countries that fall short of the high human rights standards expected.
All I can say about these important recommendations is that I hope British politicians and some journalistic commentators and academics are listening.
Some of them would fall far short of what is expected. When Prime Minister David Cameron was pushed into setting up the searching judicial inquiry following phone hacking revelations last summer he implied what the inquiry should find.
Before the inquiry had been set up, let alone any evidence heard before it or in the criminal courts, he made it clear that the UK system of self-regulation had failed miserably. The Press Complaints Commission had to go, politicians should be ashamed of meeting Rupert Murdoch too often and currying his favour in return for the support of his newspapers at election time.
The government effectively stopped Murdoch from taking full control of BskyB which had become one of the most successful satellite broadcasters in the world, members of parliament questioned Murdoch and some went still further.
Supported by some academics, celebrities, the rich and famous and long term campaigners for stricter press regulation, many politicians swayed towards statutory regulation of newspapers. Failed and dangerous arguments for the licencing of newspapers and their journalists were rehearsed, admittedly in response to some revelations that were by any standards shocking and shaming for most journalists, let alone those outside the media.
So these are among the key lessons to be learned from what went on at least in one newspaper in the first few years of this century. We will not know if criminality was more widespread until judicial and criminal inquiries are completed. We may have to wait several years if prosecutions result.
News International, the relatively small UK press subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corp, is paying out huge sums in damages to acknowledge wrong doing and settle civil actions about invasions of privacy. However, it should not yet be taken as conclusive evidence of widespread criminal activity or guilt.
The exposure of wrong doing or the failure of corporate governance in any commercial organisation is a perfectly legitimate pursuit. Media organisations should not be immune from that nor from scrutiny by competing news organisations, such as that carried out by the Guardian, some other newspapers and broadcasters in the UK and the New York Times, a major rival to Murdoch in the United States.
But those political motivations and competitive instincts should at least be weighed before final conclusions are drawn. I was a touch agitated by a reporter from a broadcaster as I was on my way to this conference who wanted me to comment on fresh revelations that Sky News, another Murdoch company, had hacked emails in the course of journalistic investigation.
Sadly, I had to point out that many news organisations, including broadcasters which are highly regulated in the UK, and indeed senior journalists from the Guardian, the newspaper that worked so energetically to expose the wrong-doing, have made it clear that sometimes, when there is a clear public interest, journalists may be justified in breaking the law or apparently breaching ethical guidelines. Indeed the UK’s editors’ code makes that clear, as do broadcasting codes and some parts of the law.
The Director of Public Prosecutions is also drawing up new guidelines that we hope will help prosecutors, the police, editors and journalists understand when and where the line of public interest should be drawn.
That is at the heart of the issues under the microscope of Lord Justice Leveson’s public inquiry. He has already made it clear that journalists are not above the law and I do not disagree.
I have long argued that, ideally journalists should have neither special privileges nor special laws other than those to which any citizen is subject. That is a view shared by Carl Berstein who rose to fame in the Washington Post’s Watergate expose of President Nixon. But sometimes a journalist, as much as any ordinary citizen, should be able argue – before a court if necessary – that in exposing wrong-doing on behalf of the public, their own breach of the law can be justified.
Thankfully there has been some rowing back from the most extreme political reactions as inquiries and investigations have progressed – and it should be remembered that so far, after 16 months of a major police probe, no one has been charged with any offence arising from the claims and allegations. It is suggested that even a Parliamentary inquiry report may need to be amended to avoid any threat to a fair trial of those at the centre of the controversy.
Meanwhile, it seems the public have far more pressing challenges to think about and sensible politicians and media watchers have pointed to the dangers. It is argued now that the Press Complaints Commission never had the powers some people thought it had, or should have had. It is widely accepted that regulation will have to be strengthened but many people are now saying “beware of what you wish for”, in terms of limitations on journalism.
While, as I have said, the growth of influence of the Murdoch empire is a legitimate subject for concern it should also be remembered that his history in the UK was until last year’s closure of the News of the World one of saving and developing newspapers and hiring and encouraging journalism, including those at The Times and The Sunday Times, two of Britain’s most respected newspapers.
Who would have subsidised them for so long? Who could have sustained them for so long without profits from the rest of his organisation worldwide? That is not to excuse failures of corporate government but as we all know, who and how the collection of news is financed particularly in this fast changing technological age is at the epicentre of this industry’s discussions here this week and indeed day-in, day-out across the globe.
My point is that even in the sophisticated and highly developed media world of the UK, we need to keep reminding governments that they have to nurture the press. It does more good than it does bad but its existence in the form that we know it is threatened by the double jeopardy of new ways of delivering the news and the difficulties of maintaining traditional revenue streams.
We don’t need interference and over regulation by governments, we need support – and I don’t mean special favours or subsidies – in order to continue doing the job that is so essential to democracy and economic well-being.
It is not new laws that are needed but an audit of existing ones concerning openness, monopolies, let alone draconian libel laws, to ensure there is a fair and level playing field upon which a healthy media can thrive, plurality of ownership and of voice can be encouraged and the public can be better served.
The British government could help by enshrining the freedom of the media into our legal system as an addendum to the wider right to freedom of expression.
Last year no less than president Obama reminded us that 200 years ago the founding fathers of the USA added a first amendment to their constitution based on freedoms already fought for and won in Britain but never properly written down on my side of the Atlantic.
Of course editors, journalists and our industry as a whole must work hard to earn the respect of the public. Much of the UK’s media, including most of its national newspapers and more than 1,200 local and regional papers maintain that respect at home and I hope abroad.
The most important lesson of recent events is respect lost by the bad journalism that has been revealed will not be won back by supine, weak journalism that allows the powerful and the comfortable to afflict the public. We must stand up for the robust and powerful journalism that is the real and continuing story of the UK press and wider media.
In putting things right, we cannot allow those who for their own reasons would prefer a weaker, neutered press to have their way. We cannot afford to let anyone chose which parts of the media should be free based simply on their own preferences for the kinds of stories THEY want to read.
As the Duke of Wellington once suggested, the press must be free to publish and, if necessary, be damned. It should have professional standards, without being a profession. It must remember that it can only succeed by serving its readers however they choose to consume its treasures but it must not be controlled, constrained or cowed by those who seek to undermine it
Bob Satchwell, Executive Director, Society of Editors in the UK, is a former journalist of the year and associate editor of the Lancashire Evening Post, Assistant Editor of the News of the World and award-winning Editor of the Cambridge Evening News.
And indeed the report says there must be willingness by governments to repeal or revise anachronistic or draconian laws that impinge on the right to freedom of expression and thus a free media.”
Satchwell added: “Whatever the outcome of the Leveson inquiries into phone hacking the UK must make sure they follow the report’s recommendations just as closely as the developing world.”