29 August 2012
The media we deserve
Decisions made this autumn may shape the practices of the press for generations, writes Andrew Graystone…
Most journalists work with courage and integrity to bring us news about the world around us. Many of us have been shocked over the past 18 months by revelations about phone hacking, bribery and political bargaining in the press. The things we have learnt have raised a host of questions about the way newspapers operate. Perhaps more importantly, there are questions about how the media needs to be reformed and what part regulation has to play. In the next few weeks Lord Leveson will publish his report into the standards and ethics of the press. His task is to clean out the stables, while also supporting the integrity and freedom of the press and providing a mechanism so that people who have been badly treated by the media can get redress.
What are the issues?
The relationship between press, police, politicians
Democracy depends on a finely balanced relationship between journalists, politicians and the police. The press must be free to report the workings of politicians, good and bad. But politicians must also be free to operate without fear of bullying from the media, and police must be impartial, and not susceptible to pressure from journalists or politicians. Some would argue that these relationships don’t need further regulation, because hacking phones and bribing the police are already criminal offences. What we certainly need is a greater openness and transparency about how journalists, police and politicians work, and how they work together. Sunlight, it is said, is the best disinfectant.
Concentration of media ownership
To get to the truth of a story we need to be able to compare perspectives and weigh up different opinions. If you get all your news from a single source, you are in danger of having a skewed view of the world. A great deal of media power is concentrated in a few powerful organisations. Some feel there should be a legal limit on the amount of media one individual or company can control. But as newspapers, broadcasters and the internet converge, it has become almost impossible to define how much media is too much for one owner.
Protecting the public
Most agree that members of the public and even celebrities deserve a measure of protection from the press. We also feel that if someone has been treated unjustly by a newspaper or broadcaster they should have a right to reply. One key aspect of Lord Leveson’s report will be his recommendations about how complaints against the press should be handled. We know the Press Complaints Commission is going to be replaced. But there’s little agreement as to what sort of body is required, and whether it will need legal powers. We can’t allow parliament to regulate the press, or the fine balance I described above will be lost. But a regulator with no statutory force may not be powerful enough to curb the excesses of bad journalism.
The price of news
Underlying all of these issues is the failing economic model of news. Collecting and publishing news is an expensive business, and with the internet taking away advertising revenue, traditional papers are struggling. Almost all national papers lose money for their proprietors and scores of local papers have merged or closed. If we value quality journalism locally and nationally, we will need to find new ways to pay for it.
A critical moment
No one is required to act on Lord Leveson’s recommendations. So the publication of his report will mark the beginning of an intense period of jockeying as politicians, police, business interests and the press fight over what is to be done. The other powerful force is what you might call civil society – those voluntary bodies and individuals who have a stake in the way news is reported. That includes churches and other groups that care about the reporting of truth and the values embodied in our media. This is a critical moment for people who care about the state of the press to make our voices heard as new standards and processes are put in place that will shape the press for years to come.
Andrew Graystone is director of the Church and Media Network