Saturday, 1 December 2012
I wrote this for openDemocracy.net -- a short reaction to the publication of the Leveson report into press standards in the UK: It is looking right now like the crux of the Leveson report is going to be ignored. I can't see a situation where, if a draft bill is introduced into the House of Commons, statutory underpinning of a new regulator will gain majority support (though it could be a close call). Personally I am quite relieved the government is showing reluctance to bring in new legislation, as I am anxious about any direct government involvement in regulating the profession, even if that involvement would be at a distance. I share the concern expressed by legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, who told Channel 4 News during an interview last night that he thought any drastic new measures would "come back and bite British democracy in the ass." Throughout the phone hacking scandal and the many moving witness testimonies during the Leveson inquiry, what struck me repeatedly was how in so many cases the actions of (mostly tabloid) reporters constituted violations of criminal or civil laws already in place. It is not clear to me how bringing in new legislation would address that problem, which was ultimately fuelled by a toxic, morally bankrupt web of corruption involving not only journalists but the police. Definitely there needs to be much stronger regulation and accountability of the press, but that regulation must be fully independent just as existing law needs to be vigorously enforced to prosecute those who cross the line. I would also say that I don't think there has been enough focus or discussion on the importance of journalism training in all of this. I studied journalism, and the first proper writing course I ever went on was at the age of 18 (about nine years ago). I will never forget one of my tutors, a tabloid freelancer based on Scotland's east coast. He was a vile man, who would spend his classes spluttering drivel about how we should always carry a camera in order to capture secretive snapshots of celebrities in vulnerable situations and such like. His blasé attitude and complete failure to grasp the concept of dignity had a profound impact on me at that impressionable age: it put me off pursuing journalism as a career for a couple of years. It took me a while to learn for myself that the tutor in question was a bad egg, and that there is a place, a much needed place, for decency and conscience in journalism. That is why I think if the Leveson report can achieve anything it will be to make tabloid practices like those espoused by my former tutor so taboo and shameful that young journalists coming into the profession today will be taught to shun them as a matter of basic instinct. We do need a culture shift in journalism, the slate needs to be wiped clean, and education is a good place to start. I don't expect that any great sea change will happen organically like magic; action will be needed. My hope is that universities, schools, colleges and organisations like the National Council for the Training of Journalists will be ready to take up the challenge.