The journalists' case for Leveson

Tonight, as the Lords vote on Leveson amendments, I have been taking part in a lively discussion, with expert input, hosted jointly by the two National Union of Journalists branches in Edinburgh.

On the panel was Paul Holleran, Scottish organiser of the NUJ; Iain Macwhirter, political columnist on the Sunday Herald, and Hugh Kerr, former MEP, and David Sinclair from the McCluskey committee, with Joyce McMillan, Scotsman columnist, chairing.

NUJ members have frequently been at odds over the Leveson proposals in recent months, though in my view the union of which I have been a member since 1982 has sought to steer a sensible path on the issue.

In short, the NUJ has rightly argued against state regulation, but for an independent regulatory body - independent of government and of the industry - underpinned by a legal framework in a similar way to that which pertains in Ireland.

It wants to see a body that would: protect free expression and a free press; ensure high standards of journalism; have the authority and ability to regulate all commercially-driven press; include, as does the Irish Press Council, union representatives; fully defend journalists who protect their sources; enshrine a conscience clause for journalist; take to task the bullying newsrooms exposed by the union's evidence to Leveson; have the power to instigate investigations, including acting on complaints from journalists; provide a right of reply; be backed by the ability to impose sanctions, such as fines; take third-party complaints, not allowed in the current system; and represent members of the public.

Writing for AllMediaScotland, David Sinclair (a former NUJ Scotland rep now heading a major NGO, and one of the five-strong ‘expert panel’ convened at the end of last year by Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond), has put the case for change in the following terms:

The media has every reason to be proud of its record of great investigative journalism; of uncovering scandals at all levels of society; of being the recorder of history for generations. It is vital that the media retains the ability to continue that good work.

For this reason the media must put its ‘own house in order’. Over more than 50 years, media regulation has proved fairly ineffectual and has occasionally managed to reinvent itself, as a Press Council or a Press Standards Commission, rather than address the underling problem: that victims of unforgivable Press intrusion had no real recourse, regardless of what was printed about them unless they happened to have the wherewithal to take the issue into the civil courts. ...

The real tragedy, currently, is that there was almost total acceptance of the Leveson findings. The case was so clear before his hearing closed and his report was published that most MPs were signed up to change, beforehand. It was simply unacceptable for the Press to be allowed free rein to continue the abuse which even they were forced to acknowledge.

So where are we now? The proprietors or their agents meet secretly with agents of the UK Government to ensure that whatever change might be introduced will be what they want; that they will have a veto on appointments; that the system is something they are happy to live with. That is precisely what is wrong with the approach – it is proprietor-led, not victim-led and Leveson was rightly about the victims.

I have read with interest all of the comment flowing from publication of the report. I note that the National Union of Journalists, eminent journalists such as Sir Harry Evans, and the editors of some of the leading broadsheet titles have broken ranks with those opposing or seeking to limit change.

I hope that rank-and-file journalists will come to realise that their interests are best served by embracing change and a system which serves their readerships without creating victims of Press abuse.

The full article is linked below, as are my own articles on why the trajectory of Leveson seems justified.

* David Sinclair: The cost of one too many in the ‘last-chance saloon’: http://www.allmediascotland.com/press/47434/david-sinclair-the-cost-of-o...

* A free press: sidelining the threat of private and corporate power: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18192

* * Leveson, the press, and un-free corporate interests: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17496

* More on Leveson from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/leveson

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has worked in media and journalism, alongside theological education, politics and ecumenical involvements, since 1980. He is an active member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Edinburgh.

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