Who guards the guardians? This was the question asked by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Brian Henry Leveson QC, chairman of the Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press.
The subsequent report is a seriously argued and comprehensive document, involving 600 individual witnesses or corporate institutions, laying bare the wounds inflicted by journalists on many good citizens, while opening an old chestnut in politicians’ all-too-cosy relationship with journalists and media barons.
However, the two most important issues in this sordid saga may not be getting the attention they deserve. They are: firstly, the danger posed to our society from power wielded by the corporate world in general; and secondly, the moral degradation of the profession of journalism, especially when it is perverted by proprietors.
The first issue is a political one. The corporate world has been known to bend rules, or even resort to coercion and outright criminal actions to reach their ends.
Legal and ethical considerations seldom stand in the way of the tactics or means the corporate world choose to adopt. In the present scenario, we do not expect this to be put under the lens of intense scrutiny because most governments are, to varying degrees, influenced by the corporate world.
The second issue concerns the behaviour of one of the pillars of society, the Fourth Estate, and specifically, the ethics of journalism. Viewing this as a purely legal or criminal matter would be naive. The media are perhaps one of the most important influences on modern society and their behaviour needs to be absolutely above board. The degeneration that has crept into the profession of journalism is usually concealed under the cover of protestations about the freedom of the press.
In the United Kingdom, the media have generally enjoyed unbridled freedom and often showed their ugly side in one form or the other. We need to establish a balance between politics, the media, the police and the law – by the regulation of the press and in the practice of journalism.
The exposure of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal revealed a disease that has been slowly clogging up the arteries of British politics for the past three decades. This is the equivalent of a heart attack that warns you you are sick but also gives you the chance to regain your health by having a coronary by-pass operation. The root cause of this particular English disease has been mighty, ruthless, out-of-control media power.
Its main symptom has been the fear this instils in celebrities, as well as the common man, who fall victim to their voyeurism, stalking or harassment.
The scandal in Britain must provoke new thinking on where the media is heading in a rat race where ethical means to an end can be disregarded and ethical standards compromised.
Before the people tar all the media with the same brush of corrupt power, the responsible media – in Britain and elsewhere – must act to reform themselves. This is not to seek to undermine the freedom or powers of media, but to encourage upright and responsible members of this profession to function in a better way. Many decent and genuine journalists are forced to resort to unfair methods under pressure to perform.
Leveson has set a testing challenge for politics, but he has also set a challenge for the press: editors need not be the mouthpieces of their paymasters, while journalists who are the foot soldiers that carry out the orders of their editors, in part to keep themselves in a job, must surely now operate in a different culture and an ethical existence.
Along with bankers and politicians, journalists are among those most distrusted by the public. This reputation is nothing to be proud of and it is no longer acceptable that freedom of the press is cited as a reason not to tighten up journalistic practice.
Just as doctors have entered a phase of revalidation after Shipman, I believe the publication of the Leveson Inquiry will similarly introduce much tighter regulation of journalistic practices so that media barons and editors will be forced to allow journalists the freedom of practice they richly deserve to tell us when and how things happen, with no coercion or threats on their fellow humans.