Douglas Chalmers, a senior lecturer in media ethics at Glasgow Caledonian University, lends his support to Lord Justice Leveson's proposals for a new press regulator
It was Tory Cabinet Minister David Mellor in 1991 who famously warned the UK popular press that they were "drinking in the Last Chance Saloon".
Enraged by press treatment of Princess Diana and others by the tabloids, he laid down the gauntlet demanding that the press rapidly mend their ways or face possible curbs on their freedom.
Shortly after this, the independent Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was set up to enforce ‘self-regulation’ – which did not however prevent the publication of a lurid ‘kiss and tell’ story about Mellor himself and actress Antonia de Sancha in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun in July 1992. This later contributed to his own political downfall (although much of the story was subsequently admitted to be false by Sancha herself).
This in its way perhaps shows something of the power of the press and why till lately politicians have been reluctant to tackle it.
There have been seven reports into the press in the last 70 years, the latest being the newly-published Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking. Within this the central question has remained - how to stop the ‘excesses’ of the tabloid press while retaining the tradition of press freedom.
Here, we need to make a clear distinction between the local press and its UK counterpart. In the main, the local press has served its communities well, while its national counterpart has often, in the words of the Leveson Inquiry, "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people".
The PCC itself has notably failed to make any impact in this area. In fact the former chair of the organisation, Baroness Buscombe, told Leveson in February this year how she no longer trusted some of the editors on the PCC as they had not told her, nor the PCC, the truth.
Prominent Express newspapers editor Richard Desmond (until recently represented on the PCC) even went so far as admitting to the Leveson Inquiry that he didn’t know what the word ‘ethical’ meant in relation to his own newspapers.
So the dilemma remains – can the national press be allowed to continue to regulate themselves, when evidence shows that this is done badly, if at all?
Leveson suggests an approach which I would wholeheartedly support. This would be a new regulatory body independent of the press owners, and importantly of government, and commercial concerns.
This would promote high standards and importantly have the power to sanction and heavily fine newspapers if they seriously breached this. This could be overseen by an organisation such as Ofcom and underpinned by legislation which would force the government to protect freedom of the press.
Thus we would have real independence again in the monitoring of our national press – and not leave it in the hands of those who have not only failed families like Millie Dowler’s and others, but have also failed society as a whole.
In the words of Leveson: “Newspapers should not be allowed to mark their own homework.” As a university lecturer I would have to agree with that.
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