Not Impressed: Section 40 & the Death of Investigative Journalism

As the clocks strike 5 this afternoon, hark that they call “time” on the government’s press regulation consultation. Perhaps the bell tolls too for our free press. I’m open to the case for Leveson 2 – an investigation into the relationship between the police and the press – otherwise the boys in blue are off the hook. But I’m unnerved by the prospect of parliament implementing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Under this legislation, any newspaper that fails to join a regulator approved by the Press Recognition Panel, will pay costs if sued for libel or breach of privacy – even if they win the case.

For the first time since 1695 the British press may be compelled, all but in name, to sign up to an official “independent” regulator, Impress. Control underpinned by Royal Charter thrashed out in a cosy deal between the main political parties and Hacked Off – a pressure group of celebrities seeking command of their public image.

Senior members of Impress have voiced their hatred for the popular press. Jonathan Heawood, chief executive, and Marie Messenger Davies, code committee chair, are both supporters of Stop Funding Hate, a pressure group urging advertisers to divest themselves from the Daily Express, Daily Mail and the Sun. Impartial?

Impress will be financed for its first four years by a £3.8 million donation from the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust, a body in turn funded by former International Automobile Association president Max Mosley. The same Max Mosley who has pursued a vendetta against the tabloid press since 2008, when he won a libel case against the News of the World who wrongly accused him of taking part in a Nazi-themed orgy. His wife wasn’t best pleased. Max being the son of fascists Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, a couple who were married in at the home of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels in 1936.

Oswald Mosley forsaw for his regime:

The press will not be free to tell lies … they will stoop to any lie or any debauch of the public mind. This must be stopped and the freedom of the press … must be curtailed.

In turn Max Mosley wrote to The Times in 1962:

We do wish to end coloured immigration … To say that this is “hatred” or “provocation” is a grotesque travesty.

Whatever Max’s politics may be today, Index on Censorship raises the objection:

the idea that a single wealthy individual should control the purse strings for a supposedly independent regulator should strike fear into the hearts of those who favour a free press.

The campaign to muzzle the press gained momentum as the phone-hacking scandal erupted from 2007 and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry (2011-12) into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

Phone-hacking pissed off the public. Murdoch’s popular Sunday News of the World, subsidizing her more up-market stablemates, was forced to close.

Let us not forget, however, that the tawdry tabloids were not alone in mixing with semi-deniable assets; seedy yet savvy private investigators. One of these hackers investigated by the Serious Organized Crime Agency revealed that the press formed only 20% of his client base. Blue chip companies, debt collectors, insurance firms, lawyers and wealthy individuals are adept at the “dark arts”. But they’re different. SOCA refuses to name those involved as “disclosing the information could undermine the financial viability of the organizations by tainting them with ‘criminality’.” The tabloids are guilty scapegoats.Writing of the Guardian, Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn charge that questions “remain unanswered about the newspaper’s own dealings with private investigators, including former MI6 officers.”

Forget not that phone-hacking, more grist for the mill for Leveson 2, has been illegal since 2000 under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

More than 5,000 people have responded to the government consultation on press regulation through the website of Hacked Off. 52,000 pages of evidence has been submitted to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport demanding the imposition of Section 40.

Yes, there are problems with the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), the self-regulatory body with 2,500 members – including the Daily MailSun, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph. Peter Jukes points out that IPSO is funded by five (legally) tax-dodging billionaires. The National Union of Journalists, yet to take a stand on Impress, opposes IPSO for preventing journalists from being involved in the ethical code committee. As Rupert Murdoch seeks to increase his grip on Sky, monopoly ownership is an issue which needs addressing too. Trinity Mirror, the owner of the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People, is in merger talks with Richard Desmond – owner of Express titles and the Star.

In his usual even-handed fashion, veteran journalist Roy Greensalde writes of IPSO:

For the most part, it works well and uncontroversially, especially for regional and local titles. But at moments when it is called on to adjudicate on high-profile complaints involving national papers, its independence is called into question. And there lies the central problem for IPSO: public perception. Whatever the reality, how can it persuade people that it is entirely free from interference from publishing paymasters, especially those responsible for having created the crisis that led to the Leveson inquiry?

But for Greenslade, his distrust of the press is trumped by his contempt for politicians:

Does the BBC feel safe from political interference because it has a royal charter? Parliamentary control of the corporation’s budget has had the effect of removing editorial staff and thereby reducing news coverage.

Even newspapers that haven’t joined IPSO – the Evening StandardFinancial TimesGuardian and Private Eye – have refused to recognize Impress. Not one national newspaper has joined the ranks of Impress. And when newspapers from the Mail on Sunday to the Morning Star oppose the new system of regulation, it gives me pause for thought. In a leader for the Spectator, Fraser Nelson comments:

When every single newspaper has decided that it would rather risk massive new libel costs than submit to a regulator sanctioned by the state, it is a sign of the depth of feeling on this matter across the press, from left to right.

Parliamentarians from former Home Secretary David Blunkett – a victim of phone hacking – to Damian Collins, chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, oppose Impress.

Apart from acting as a boon for “ambulance-chasing” lawyers, Section 40 threatens the quality of investigative journalism. How did the public find out about politicians abusing their expenses? Through the Daily Telegraph. Who helped keep alive the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence? The Daily Mail and Guardian. Who revealed the drug-taking of cycling champion Lance Armstrong, the extent of violent thug David Hunt’s illegal activities and FIFA corruption? The Sunday Times. Andrew Norfolk, who exposed for The Times that various public authorities knew about the extent of child grooming in towns such as Rotherham, yet did nothing, warns:

Had section 40 been on the statute book when I became a trainee journalist 27 years ago, countless articles published in this and other newspapers would never have seen the light of day. The risk would have been too great. In fact, it’s barely even a risk. It’s almost inbuilt guarantee of punitive financial sanctions. 

According to a recent report, the British public trust the press less than their counterparts in Greece and Serbia. Yet a lack of trust in public institutions, an increased questioning of authority and a general decline in deference since the Second World War are mentalities fostered, albeit partially, by the fourth estate.

A free press is crucial in holding power to account. Newspapers are being blackmailed to join Impress “voluntarily”, or self-censor. You have until 5pm today to register your opposition to Section 40.

Sources

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