Director of the Society of Editors Bob Satchwell asked who will fund the ‘great edifice of regulation’being called for in the wake of the hacking scandal when he delivered the Olsen Lecture at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, last night.
He said: ‘If pubic money is expended on a new system it will not come without strings and, however well intentioned, it will be the first step to censorship and state control. Don’t let anyone persuade us to start down this dark tunnel.”
And he also questioned whether in the current financial climate the press industry can afford to fund the sort of beefed up regulator which is being proposed.
On the hacking scandal, he said: ‘We may never know if it was conspiracy or cock-up that caused serious misbehaviour that now threatens the fabric of the media as a whole.
‘The consequences have already been dire. News Corp has lost its bid, top policemen have resigned and, love it or loath it, the News of the World has been sacrificed along with its proud history of exposing wrong doing that goes back long before many other papers thought of investigating or campaigning on behalf of their readers.
‘The reputation of journalism in the UK has been tarnished unjustifiably. Ironically even the dogged investigative journalism of the Guardian was threatened, as we have seen, until the whole of the media joined with one voice to condemn the Metropolitan Police.
‘The debate about media ownership and plurality will continue but the media cannot be blamed for perceptions of the power of one company or more precisely one man. There is also the danger that the economics of the industry may not be able to withstand new limitations or control. Some papers – and other parts of the media – struggle to survive when they are relatively free of constraints.”
Satchwell also spoke up in favour of the sole proprietor model of newspaper ownership versus the shareholder one.
‘Over the years those papers with a single proprietor or a dominant chief executive have tended to fare best. As we see now those with powerful shareholders – as opposed to owners with big shareholdings – can be starved of investment in journalism in the pursuit of share value. That is a danger in itself.”
Speaking up for the vital public interest role of the press, Satchwell recalled one of the first stories he worked on as a local newspaper journalist, which exposed how six children had been denied access to grammar school despite passing the 11-plus because of a quota system.
Satchwell said he worked on the story in his spare time and on days off, and said that it resulted in local authority bureaucrats reversing their decision and letting the children go to grammar school.
‘I had long forgotten that story until ten years later a letter arrived from one of the girls. ‘Dear Mr Satchwell,’ she wrote, ‘without you I would not have gone to grammar school, so I probably would not have gone to university. I thought you would like to know I have just been awarded a first class honours degree – thank you.’
‘The thought of that letter still brings a tear to my eye but, more important, when people ask how we will ever rebuild public trust in the media, there can only be one answer:
‘This was a tale of innocent children and self satisfied bureaucrats. With youthful zeal I had unwittingly followed that dusty adage that journalism is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
‘And the lesson is that it is wrong to try to interfere and make that task more difficult. Anyone who does will never overcome determined journalism It would be bad news for the media, but more importantly, it would betray the public.”