Issues of privacy and press regulation are best decided by a body such as the Press Complaints Commission – and it should be better funded and have the power to investigate areas of concern rather than simply reacting to complaints, according to broadcaster and media commentator Raymond Snoddy.
There were “insidious and growing threats” to our freedoms from issues such as libel tourism and super-injunctions to the introduction of privacy law “courtesy of a small number of specialist lawyers”, he told the IBC-Reed Smith Protecting the Media conference.
Another danger was Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the press, launched by Prime Minister David Cameron as a result of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
“Lest there is any doubt, it was of course entirely disgraceful for a number of journalists at the News of the World to hack into mobile phones of private citizens without any justification whatever,” Snoddy said.
But establishing Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry was “an outrageous piece of political expediency” by the Prime Minister, who had also apparently pre-judged the outcome by describing the PCC as a “failed” organisation.
Snoddy said: “Save in one respect – dealing with illegal phone hacking – the PCC is not a failed organisation. It is one that has worked tirelessly to get fast, free, redress for those who have been subject to inaccurate or intrusive reporting without reasonable cause and you can actually make a strong case that on the whole press behaviour has improved over the past 20 years.”
He added: “It is true that the PCC is not set up to investigate criminal behaviour and it is also true that it might have been less unquestioning in believing the ‘one rogue reporter’ story put about by News International. But then again the poor old PCC was certainly misled and possibly lied to by both News International and the police.”
Law of unintended consequences
The problem was that Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry was so widely framed that there was no way of predicting what the result would be, or how far it might reach, Snoddy said. He added: “In a year’s time we could be contemplating once again the law of unintended consequences – considerable harm, innocently done.”
Another problem was the composition of the inquiry’s panel – “there is not a member with a second’s experience on a tabloid newspaper, using the old definition, and no-one from the local or regional press,” he said. “There are however no less than two retired political editors in George Jones and Elinor Goodman.
“Another member, Sir David Bell, former chairman of the Financial Times, is an estimable character in every way – I have known him for 40 years – but he was the main influence behind the founding of the Media Standards Trust. It’s first investigation two years ago? One into the useless nature of the PCC.”
Problems included the lack of a definition of the public interest – and the probable impossibility of arriving at one – and the “almost terminal gulf between the two conflicting articles of human rights legislation, promising at the same time the right to privacy and the right to know”, Snoddy said.
“Call me biased if you like but it is my firm belief that the right to know should, on the whole – and weasel words yet again suggest the difficulty – take precedence over the right to privacy,” he went on.
“It is what civilisation and human development is based on.”
He had two grounds for arguing this. “In the internet age protecting most forms of privacy is simply impossible and courts will find it increasingly difficult to enforce,” he said.
“The courts could stop newspapers writing about the behaviour of Ryan Giggs yet it was all over the internet. Millions round the world knew about it and the information was chanted from the terraces.”
The very concept of privacy and what was private was changing dramatically. In addition, those who earned vast sums of money in the public domain, trading off a pure image, and who could be seen as role models for the young, should be exposed when there was a vast gulf between the image and their actual behaviour.
“When such people go to court citing privacy what they are actually trying to do it prevent behaviour which they clearly are not in the slightest proud of becoming public knowledge,” Snoddy said.
“We can argue for hours about whether I am right. It matters little. In the age of the internet such information will become available somewhere.”
A press that is ‘vulgar, mendacious and malign’
But in the end such fine decisions on where the balance between what should be reported and what not would be best decided by body which looked “very much like the PCC” although would probably have to be a new name, while there were some obvious improvements which could be made.
No commission members should be actively involved with the press, though some could remain as advisors, and the PCC should be better funded and able to carry out investigations in areas of concern.
“As you will have guessed I stand firmly behind the principle of self-regulation of the press within the law,” Snoddy said.
“I can do no other, and indeed I am also in favour of a press that is sometimes vulgar and even occasionally mendacious and malign if there is good reason for being so,” he added.
Departure from that principle would lead to all sorts of problems and they would run impossibly, impractically, counter to one of the over-arching even defining trends of our age – the unstoppable move towards ever more open and transparent information systems.