Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Last Christmas For Britain’s Free Press?

Happy ChristmasSO ANOTHER YEAR PASSES, and over the Christmas Turkey, Christmas Pudding, wine and port we can all reminisce about the last twelve months and just how long it took for us to break our last New Year Resolutions.

Fortunately, I did not break mine; because I did not make one. I am much too long in the tooth to believe that leopards can change their spots; and, in any case, I am perfectly happy with my own coat, which I judge to be both warm and silky.

I am aware, of course, that many of those whom I write about do not share the same opinion. They would rather I report their numerous fine words – without comparing what they say to their actions. But such is the quest of journalists, seeking to portray facts to their readers rather than engaging in their subjects’ public relations spin.

2011 has been an unmitigated disaster for the Free Press, in which pompous politicians, celebrities, and business leaders have sought to use the questionable ethics employed by part of the Murdoch press as a means of relieving the public pressure upon themselves. Hidden behind this year’s headline fog has been how our corrupt politicians have censored the actions of the newly created Expenses Watchdog; done nothing to limit the ludicrous bonuses being paid in the City; and now propose to rewrite the Freedom of Information legislation to exclude the Cabinet. And journalists have even been told that quoting, verbatim, what is said in Parliament, might nonetheless have legal implications for themselves.

It has long been the case, in Britain, that politicians, celebrities, and business leaders systematically vet the words written by journalists to ensure they do not give interviews to those whom might disagree with their views. And that list, over the past few years, has now been extended to those with a reputation for impartiality.

So, if your subject will not speak to you, how do you get at the truth or confirm what has been reported elsewhere? The answer is that you gather evidence, from all other sources, until you have enough confirmed material to defend you should the matter go to court.

While your subject remains silent, in the hope that the matter will go away, any responsible journalist will turn to the internet, track down eye witnesses, review the public record – and use any other necessary means at their disposal to arrive at the truth.

Would the public expect any less?..

Personally, I would like to know why the News of the World took to employing private investigators instead of using its journalists to undertake its black arts – although I suspect, when the reason becomes known, it will all come down to staffing and money. As with all other titles, staffers are in short supply – and any long investigative process is horrendously expensive in manpower, time, and resources.

The ungodly would have the public believe that the Press are out of control and are currently above the law; but that is pure spin, designed to manufacture a case for limiting the freedom of the press. The press is simply performing its duty, and it has always been the case that journalists are subject to the law, just like any other individual. And, just like any other individual, any case of law breaking by a journalist can be taken to court.

The Public Interest Defence, so widely misinterpreted by the ungodly, simply provides jurors with the ability to consider if the journalist’s actions were justified in the light of the evidence – and to agree to a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict if they are convinced that it is so. It is not the fault of journalists if the CPS decides not to try journalists because it believes their actions can be proved to be in the Public Interest. And journalists cannot be blamed when the police decide not to prosecute when they decide it might be ‘against the public interest’ to do so. (In other words, because more dirty laundry would come to light).

The ungodly call for a detailed definition of what ‘the Public Interest’ means. They want to dot the Is and cross the Ts in a parliamentary debate in which there is a good chance that, whatever is decided, will leave enough loopholes to provide them even more opportunities for not responding to legitimate questions – or claiming that their human rights are being undermined. But the reason why the definition, Public Interest, is so vague is that it permits THE JUDGE AND JURY to decide what it means, in the context of an actual case. And that is how things should be.

Who is to decide what is in the public interest, and what is not; if it is not to be the judge and jury when a specific set of allegations are made? The whole question about defining the phrase is not to make the option clearer to jurors – it is to restrict the freedom of the press and ensure that no public interest trial can ever again come to court. (And why do you think that there are so few public interest trials anyway? It is certainly not because journalists, or their lawyers, are unwilling to state their case.)

OK, so the News of the World might have been ‘out of control';’ but throughout the Leveson evidence and questioning: no one has asked WHY the journalists took the action they did. And no one has explained why taxpayers are forced to fund such an expensive inquiry when, given that there is sufficient evidence, individual journalists could simply be taken to court. Could it be that the real reason is that, in a court of law, the journalists involved would have a fair hearing and could be proven to have had no other option but to resort to illegal methods to obtain the proof they needed?

But the Leveson Enquiry will ensure that we will probably never know; because who believes, in the parallel police investigations, that any journalist will actually face a criminal court?  (Unless, of course, politicians have had their way to rewrite the Public Interest so that asking ‘why’ is no longer a valid question for a judge or a jury).

This Christmas, we should all remember this: it was not the police or the politicians that revealed MP expenses corruption; it was a Free Press in the shape of the Telegraph.

And it was not the police or the politicians that revealed the corrupt payments being made to police officers or the other dubious practices of part of the Murdoch stable; it was the Free Press in the shape of the Guardian.

Furthermore, it was not the police or politicians that exposed Bell Pottinger; it was the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (as usual, lighting the way).

Redefining the Public Interest, or repealing its use as a genuine journalistic defence, will seriously undermine press freedoms – and democracy in this country.  Every year, it seems, those in authority continue to try and ensure that only they have the right to free speech – so that they can never be scrutinised by the taxpayers paying their salaries.

It is not journalistic methods that should form the basis of an enquiry – it is the behaviour and conduct of our supposed leaders that resulted in their subsequent use.

I hate to say it; but January 1st is unlikely to portend a Happy New Year for British Journalism in 2012…

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