MEDIA SOCIETY DEBATE
June 4, 2013, University of Westminster
Opening remarks by Paul Charman, BA Journalism Course Director at the London College of Communication.
The question of training very much depends on what the new regulatory landscape will look like. At the moment it is very much a Tale of two charters – one put forward by the industry and currently being considered by the Privy Council or the three-party version put together in late night sessions in the Commons with representatives of Hacked Off. We may want to discuss the differences, but one thing is for certain – the lawyers will have to retrain, perhaps more so than the journalists.
Whichever is charter is adopted, no one doubts that there will be stronger enforcement and a keener necessity for journalists to abide by what is likely to be a revamped PCC Code of Practice if they are to avoid expensive arbitration costs, which will certainly be a penalty incorporated in the government charter. Arbitration costs under the government’s charter proposals could cost as much as £2,000, simply for getting a name wrong.
Perhaps controversially it is broadly my view that what we have at the moment has worked well both in training and in practice. Let’s remind ourselves of what is already in place – some of the fiercest libel laws in the world, contempt of court, breach of confidence, a new law of privacy via Europe, as well the PCC Code of Conduct. This is what forms and should continue to inform the syllabus of our legal and ethical training at the LCC.
Meanwhile we must equally remind ourselves what prompted Leveson – alleged illegal activity by News Int. – phone-hacking and bribery of police and government officials on an industrial scale.
But these were criminal acts which not only prompted the closure of one of our oldest newspapers, the NoW, but has left 60 employees past and present facing the threat of prison.
It is interesting to compare the misdeeds of the press with those of the banking industry. RBS didn’t close, no one has been charged and regulation is yet to come into force.
My point is that no amount of training could have influenced the decisions of those employees to break the law under pressure to keep their jobs. I say to keep their jobs because all the evidence suggests that anyone who was not prepared to do what appears to have become standard office practice knew they would be out.
This was recently confirmed in a television interview with the hugely experienced Crime Reporter Jeff Edwards who told how he had turned down a job at NoW because he was instructed to phone-hack, which demonstrates Burke’s point that: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
Which brings me to my second point about training. And that is the primacy of teaching and fostering a personal sense of professional integrity in individual journalists. We have to make young trainees aware of the need to maintain standards regardless of commercial corporate pressure or from whatever quarter.
In terms of general legal and ethical training, libel, contempt, privacy and the code still hold good.
However I have observed that Leveson has encouraged an overcautious attitude towards journalistic practices, both in the trainees’ mind and in the industry.
In a recent Privacy and Ethics Exam with our undergraduates, a worrying number utterly forgot the public interest defence to justify subterfuge in order to investigate a dodgy company.
And Peter Wright, former editor of the Mail on Sunday, giving evidence in support of the industry’s Charter to a Commons Select Committee recently admitted that one effect of Leveson was that “he would have thought hard” before pursuing an investigation such as the MP Expenses scandal if it recurred.
And writing in the June edition of the British Journalism Review, media barrister Charlie Potter warns “the proposal for arbitration by the new regulatory body may be costly for a national and regional press industry in financial difficulty, by encouraging a raft of vexatious, try-on claims with no merit”.
Already there are worrying developments in the regions. The editor of Hull Daily Mail, Neil Hodgkinson, spoke recently of a new “claims and complaints culture” being pursued by readers encouraged by the televised disgrace of the press during the Leveson hearings
“Convicted violent offenders are trying to sue from prison arguing about the negativity of the coverage of their trials. And people simply photographed arriving at court now complain that their ‘human rights’ have been abused”, he said.
So it’s important to take stock of the negative impact of Leveson, not only on the young but on the general authority of journalists and the press which I think has been substantially undermined
Therefore I believe it is equally vital in our training that we understand journalism not just in terms of practice but from the point of view of its wider social responsibility through our Contextual Studies programme as a necessary function of democracy, stressing the right to freedom of expression, the freedom of the press, the right to report, investigate, expose and hold to account.
We must reinforce this to help rebuild the authority of the press. We must do this to arm the young against commercial pressure – not just from bullying news desks demanding unethical behavior from easily intimidated new recruits but to make the trainees equally aware of the difference between news and corporate public relations. The emergence of ‘brand journalism’ is a worrying development which to my mind devalues the word journalism.
So the moral case for journalism needs to be remade again and again. I see this as fundamental both in training and in the wider public debate if we are to continue to have a free, ethical, and most importantly a socially effective press that people can trust and respect.