The following is a letter written by journalist and journalism lecturer and author James Morrison to Simon Kirby MP, as part of the NUJ/Media Reform/Hacked Off lobbying conducted at Parliament on the day of the Leveson report. This editor believes this letter offers an excellent case for full statutorily-underpinned independent regulation of the press and cogently demolishes the counter-argument (or rather, scaremongering) of the prime minister and his media baron lobbyists:
Dear Mr Kirby,
I am sorry we were unable to meet in person today in the lobby, though I appreciate it was a very busy day and I am grateful to Matthew for taking the time to come and see me on your behalf.
Following Lord Justice Leveson's address this lunchtime and the ensuing Commons statements, I would like to take this opportunity to urge you to join with fellow colleagues on the Conservative benches, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, in calling for the report's recommendations to be implemented in full and at the earliest possible opportunity.
As a journalist of 17 years standing and, for the past decade, a journalism lecturer and trainer, I decided to take part in today's lobby by the Media Reform Coalition because I feel very strongly that both the public interest and the future of rigorous, responsible journalism will best be served by adopting a tough new independent regulatory regime for the press. However, this alone is not enough: for a new regulatory system to work properly, and be seen to be truly independent of both powerful business interests and political interference, it absolutely requires statute to put it on a firm legal footing.
Leaving it to the press to cobble together the new regime off its own back - as the prime minister seems to be proposing - simply wouldn't work. Without passing a law to set a firm timetable, clear remit and sanctions regime for those who refuse to sign up to the new framework, how can we be certain any or all of the newspaper proprietors will ever implement a satisfactory regulator (or, indeed, get the ball rolling to even begin the process of reform in the first place)? And how exactly would the kind of financial penalties - or, indeed, incentives - Lord Leveson recommended be brought into being without some form of new Act?
No one in the Media Reform Coalition, Hacked Off, or any of the campaign groups arguing for these changes wants us to emerge with anything but a raucous, vital, irreverent and energetic press: this is not about censorship, state control, or indeed anything but the most basic statutory underpinning. As someone who teaches investigative journalism to undergraduate students at Kingston University, and runs postgraduate modules focusing on the importance of questioning and challenging the conduct of our public institutions, I would have nothing to do with any of these demands if I were not convinced that they were necessary.
Mr Cameron suggests that passing a statute to formalise the new arrangements, and the penalties that journalists and newspapers would incur should they fail to cooperate with it (or subsequently break its terms), would be tantamount to opening the floodgates to future erosions of press freedom - by enabling a (hypothetical) authoritarian government to tweak the law to introduce more overtly repressive measures. But such scaremongering simply doesn't stack up: if such an administration were to come to pass, there would be nothing preventing it from introducing a raft of truly illiberal laws from scratch, never mind fiddling around with an (entirely benign) existing one.
Equally, the idea that Ofcom (acting as a potential overseer of the proposed regime) represents too much of a "concentration of power" is laughable as a defence for inaction, particularly in light of the issues about concentrated media ownership (and, by extension, power) that have been so expertly highlighted both by the Leveson Inquiry itself and by the Media Reform Coalition, Hacked Off and others urging the government to address the inherently related matter of press plurality. If Mr Cameron cares so much about such "concentrations", then he could start by listening to those of us who have been calling on him to go far further than Lord Leveson was empowered to - by introducing a formal cap on the percentage of the print media market that can be owned by a single proprietor and/or publisher...
As a curious aside, in suggesting that Ofcom's independence might somehow be questioned because his colleague, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is responsible for appointing its chairman, the prime minister almost seemed to be implying that her impartiality in making such appointments shouldn't be trusted. What a bizarre argument - and what double standards! If the form of 'independent' regulation we currently have for the broadcast and communications media is so open to corruption, why not argue for rolling that back too - and for adopting a similarly 'Leveson lite' approach to that now being proposed by Mr Cameron for the press? Of course, the truth is that Ofcom (barring the odd gaffe) has been doing a perfectly decent job - and (as with the Levesonesque print regulators adopted in Ireland, Finland and elsewhere) the proof of this lies in the fact that television has increasingly 'led the papers' in recent times with the quality and edginess of its investigative journalism. Think Channel 4's Dispatches, the best of BBC1's Panorama and the highly challenging and outspoken documentaries of filmmakers ranging from John Pilger to Peter Taylor and Adam Curtis that have been broadcast in the past few years - all within Ofcom's lifetime.
As things stand, there is a real risk that a year-long inquiry which cost millions of pounds and put a lot of people through a great deal of discomfort by forcing them to relive their experiences of phone-hacking, blagging and other maltreatment - including ordinary families who suffered huge additional trauma at the hands of the press after being thrust into extraordinary circumstances by tragedy and bereavement - could turn out to have been for nothing. Please think long and hard before committing yourself one way or the other in this debate, and I would urge you to vote in support of the full implementation of the Leveson proposals should the opportunity arise at any point in the coming weeks and months.
James Morrison © 2012
To sign the Hacked Off petition to Parliament for the implementation of the Leveson recommendations go to this link: http://hackinginquiry.org/news/sign-the-petition-implement-leveson-support-the-victims/