The Lessons Of Leveson

Peter Corder spent 20 years working in the newspaper industry before setting up PR/marketing agency Media Matters. But he is saddened by the worst excesses of some tabloid “journalists”. Here, he explains why the whole sector could be penalised by the actions of a rogue minority

The activities of certain elements of the British tabloid media sometimes make me ashamed to have worked in that profession for so many years. And sadly, the tacky and grubby nature of their approach has given the media as a whole, such a bad name. It has also resulted in the Leveson Inquiry and with it, the threat of legislation to restrain the worst excesses of the British press.

What a sad state of affairs when some tabloid journalists can’t distinguish between stories that are in the public interest and those which are not… What is the public significance in a story about the love life of comedy star Steve Coogan or Charlotte Church? Or what Max Moseley is getting up to in the privacy of his own home? Or cropping a photo of Sienna Miller lying on the floor at a charity ball and claiming she was drunk, when in fact she had been playing with a disabled child? Or a tacky peeping tom taking long lens photos of the Duchess of Cambridge topless sunbathing in the privacy of a courtyard in a remote French chateau?

As someone who worked as a regional newspaper journalist and editor for over 20 years before setting up Media Matters, I am both saddened and angered by such practices. They belong in the gutter. There is no place for that in responsible British journalism. It certainly ignores the codes of conduct and ethics taught to trainee journalists about balance, fairness and integrity. And where is the public interest justification?

Press freedom in the UK is partly what makes this country so great. There is no censorship – but equally, it is what makes us in the media look so tawdry when irresponsible journalists go beyond what is both decent and sometimes legal to justify a steamy, sordid or shocking front page headline. Phone hacking is the worst personification of this practice.

Some editorial managers will weigh up the cost benefit of increased casual sales against the likely litigation costs – if it stacks, they publish and are happy to face the consequences. And yet, some tabloid journalists have unearthed hugely important stories which are very much ‘in the public interest’ and which often bring our government and those in authority to account for their actions. We must protect that precious press freedom for all it is worth. It is the cornerstone of our democratic society.

I have no problem with journalists hiding in bushes or going undercover to unearth stories that are plainly “in the public interest” – but let’s be absolutely clear on the meaning of that phrase.

The Leveson Inquiry has rightly shone a light into the darker corners of the British media and maybe this will provide the opportunity for all those in national newspaper journalism to review the meaning of the words “in the public interest” – and if they need help, perhaps a more forceful Press Complaints Commission or similar body can assist. The alternative – a censored or heavily regulated British media – would be an erosion of our democratic freedom and a disaster for us all.

So my appeal to the movers and shakers in the media is to get your act together; agree a stricter code of ethics; agree with government on an independent regulator with powers to punish the media with seriously punitive fines and publishing apologies with the same prominence as the original offending story. In essence, create a regulator with significantly more teeth than the existing Press Complaints Commission. This really is the last chance saloon for press freedom in this country – I urge the media industry leaders not to blow it.

Peter Corder

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