The Times set out its stall on the future of the press today ahead of editor James Hardings’ appearance before the Leveson Inquiry.
The lengthy leader makes a number of concessions to the new era which has been forced upon the British press by the hacking scandal.
Most significantly, it argues that there should be new rules around prior-notification of the subjects of stories, the need for an new independent press regulator and the need for tougher sanctions on press rule-breakers.
The leader states:
The report of the Leveson inquiry, for all the inauspicious circumstances of its establishment, can prove to be a positive moment, one where Britain gains both a better and a freer press.
But it adds:
The public has more to fear from secrecy than to gain from privacy. A muffled press does not make for a quieter world, but for a cacophony of rumour.
On the contentious issue of prior notification, The Times says:
Newspapers should contact the person or institution that they are writing about before the story runs. This is for reasons of decency – it is better to tell something unpleasant to someone’s face than go behind their back; it is for reasons of accuracy – you want to know their side of the story; and it is for reasons of fairness – it gives them a chance to inform friends, family and colleagues of negative coverage to come.
Editors must be able to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life made without prior notification. Such notification should be considered best practice, rather than be made obligatory. This is not just because obligation might produce a surge in attempted injunctions. It might also make it impossible to publish: for instance, the subject of the story could switch their phone off, meaning the journalist cannot notify them and the paper cannot publish.
Proposing an end to the current system of self-regulation of the press, The Times says:
We propose a move from self-regulation to independent regulation. Journalists cannot go on marking their own homework. News organisations can no longer set the rules of the regulator or appoint the people on it. Their only role must be to pay for it, and to respect its judgment….
The new regulator needs to be more than just a clearing house for complaints: it needs to have investigative and punitive powers too….
The Times argues that membership of the new regulatory body could be made obligatory by making it a condition of a VAT zero rating on digital and print publications or by creating new commercial contracts bindings publishers in.