Press freedom, or press responsibility? It is time we checked the most powerful organisations in Britain

Giles Marshall 9.50am

Eight-six MPs and peers have signed a letter urging David Cameron not to accept any recommendation for statutory oversight of the press, should such be made by Lord Leveson in his much anticipated report.

In many ways it is encouraging that so many legislators, themselves often the target of press attacks, should be so concerned about what they have termed an issue of free speech. They are right in wanting to steer clear of political control of any media outlet. Yet the issue for the British press is no longer really one of free speech; it is one of responsibility.

The Leveson Inquiry’s exhaustive hearings unearthed example after example of astonishing abuse of press power. This wasn’t simply the willingness of some newspapers to use illegal methods to obtain information; it was also their relentless commitment to the harassment and persecution of those who they decided, often on a whim or on the barest of hard knowledge, to victimise.

Famous examples of non-celebrity figures include the McCanns and Chris Jefferies, but they were hardly the first. There have been many more low-profile examples. The stories of Juliet Shaw and an innocent deputy headmistress, both caught up in the Daily Mail’s tangled web of media ethics, serve as a reminder of just what happens when there isn’t a major inquiry into the conduct of the press.

The Sun managed to identify an innocent man as a paedophile and never produced an apology, so weak is the current system of press regulation. There are plentiful, regular examples of how an out of control press - particularly the tabloids - smear people’s reputations with no requirement to apologise or make restitution when they are proved - as they so often are - wrong. The intrusion of the press into private lives continues unabated. The best observation of press antics comes at the moment from heroic blogs such as Tabloid Watch and The Media Blog, which makes depressing reading.

The MPs who signed the letter today rightly consider that the ability of the press to investigate political and commercial interests without fear or favour should be unhindered. Agreed.

The problem is that it so often doesn’t. It isn’t MPs or political interests who require the defence of a proper system of regulatory control. It is the little people, the small people’s interests, who urgently require this support. The very people MPs should be representing and whose interests they should be considering. It is in some ways astonishing that the eighty-six signatories of today’s letter have been so willing to leap to the defence of powerful, vested media interests, but have remained mute when ordinary people have been victims of press abuse.

Then again, many politicians mix freely with owners, editors and reporters. Mr Cameron’s friendship with Rebekah Brooks; Michael Gove’s past employment with Rupert Murdoch’s Times; Boris Johnson’s present employment with the Barclay twins’ Daily Telegraph; Jeremy Hunt’s cringeworthy emails and texts to a senior aide of the Murdoch corporation - all these relationships betoken an unhealthy danse macabre that wholly fails to protect us from a rampaging, lazy, abusive press.

The Guardian has published a poll finding today suggesting that 79 per cent of the public want a powerful regulatory body to control the press. It would be difficult to find an issue on which there is such variance between our representatives and ourselves.

Preventing the press from publishing untrue statements that irreparably damage people’s lives is not the same - nowhere near - as political control and it is a pity that today’s letter’s signatories don’t realise this.

It was Stanley Baldwin many years ago - using a comparison possibly offered to him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling - who noted that the press “have great power without any responsibility. The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

Too much of the British media has failed to show even the slightest hint of willingness to regulate themselves. It is time they were subject to the same strictures as every other organisation in this country, for they wield the greatest power, and power should never be allowed to go unchecked.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Shame on all your houses

Giles Marshall 1.42pm

Hubris hits us all in time, so it seems. For decades Rupert Murdoch has bestrode the British political scene. Unencumbered by the menial requirements of your everyday voter - such as UK citizenship or the need to pay taxes - Mr Murdoch has wielded more power and influence over Prime Ministers, putative and actual, than any normal citizen. His editors have been the satraps of his power, the unelected viziers demanding preferred policies from a timid and beleaguered political class.

How things change. The crisis in journalism effected by the hacking scandal has been boiling under the surface for years but has burst on to the scene largely without warning. It is not only changing the way that things are done but shining a light on the darker corners of the British polity.

The Independent's Steve Richards has written a trenchant article today about these changes. He remarks on the extraordinary scenes of once fearful MPs lining up to attack the Murdoch ‘empire’ (it’s always an empire, isn’t it?), and his key henchmen and women. It is a fine read, suitably over the top and biting about the malign influence of News International. I wonder whether it could have been written the day before yesterday, even at the Indy, which along with the Guardian has admirably not shied away from coverage of the scandal.

Few can emerge with much credit from the disentangling of these dubious and illegal practices. The bulk of the newspapers have failed to produce any sort of investigation, a sorry state of affairs brilliantly and damningly described by Peter Oborne in an essay for the Spectator. The Guardian stands honourably alone in this regard and we can only speculate as to the pressure that newspaper has had to withstand both within and without the incestuous media world.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has remained a vapid eunuch incapable of action against its own. The political class, repeatedly confronted as it is by the vicious excesses of tabloid journalism, cravenly failed to take a stand (barring a few exceptions, notably Labour’s Tom Watson). Only now as the giant is on its knees are they starting to run towards it, kicking and punching and biting for all they are worth.

The Metropolitan Police’s role is particularly murky and itself the subject of a potential investigation. While quick to leap into action against politicians - for instance on cash for honours or MPs’ expenses - police officers have proven less enthusiastic to pursue the papers.

The shabbiest actions, however, are reserved for our leading politicians. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, the collective currying for Murdoch’s favour has been a ludicrous sideshow of lilliputian proportions. Blair’s flight in 1995 to an Australian junket with News Corp executives; Cameron’s decision to employ Andy Coulson and his wining and dining with Rebekah Brooks; Ed Miliband’s toadying at the News International summer bash and signing up another former Murdoch man, Tom Baldwin, as his press secretary.

The press wields enormous power. It has the nefarious ability to destroy the reputations of individuals big and small. Such are this country’s libel laws that journalists rarely need to apologise for their grievous errors. With the stroke of a pen or click of a mouse, journalists can cause enormous unaccountable damage and it is now starkly shown that they have been employing illegal means to intrude on private lives with the utmost indecency and impunity. While gleeful to demand the hides of politicians when they err, key figures in News International now simply slink away into their unfathomable fortress.

Will there be any justice? Will Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson et al face the comeuppance they so often demand of others? Justice, in this instance, has to be more than a mere inquiry or two into News International. Justice requires a root-and-branch review of the way that the press conducts itself.

One of David Cameron’s predecessors in Number 10, Stanley Baldwin, when under pressure from the Rupert Murdoch of his day, Lord Beaverbrook, commented that the press ‘had power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ He pointed to journalism at its lowest point. What the journalistic profession could and should be is eloquently summed up by Peter Oborne:

Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for truth and decency.

If the result of this scandal is that journalism can return to these high ideals, rather than this tawdry state of affairs, then something good may come of it after all.

Share this article on Twitter