Who will watch the papers if there is no state regulation?

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 26 November 2012 in Diary
Sadie Smith thinks that the media needs a meaningful code of conduct

The latest in the long-running series of 'Why politicians shouldn’t make funnies. Ever' is Michael Gove’s latest offering at the Spectator awards. Okay everyone, prepare to hold your sides: Gove said "It's ... a pity that His Honour Brian Leveson cannot be here so he could receive the Bureau of Investigative Journalism award for commitment to truth-telling for his wonderful comments: 'I don't really need any lessons in freedom of speech, Mr Gove, really I don't'."

Well, it was described as a joke in the write-up anyway.

To me, it looks a bit like old Gove was doing the speech equivalent of one of those classic entrances on the Jeremy Kyle show, where the wounded party stomps heavily onto the stage from the wings while screaming unintelligibly at the person who has just dissed them to the perennially outraged Jezza. Still, it probably looked good at the drawing board stage.

Since the report of Leveson became imminent, the press have been howling with a greater ferocity than hitherto that Leveson is the worst threat to civil liberties since the last one we all got so upset about, whatever that was. Add to this screeching a selection of self-interested politicians trying to curry a bit of favour with the media in the hope that they’ll forget that the coalition brought about the damn inquiry in the first place, and you get the context for Gove’s joke.

It all sounds so noble, the shouting about free speech. The public’s right to know! Heroic pledges by the bin-pickers in the tabloids that they will continue to expose celebrity shagging, as is their noble duty to the nation (it’s what George Orwell would have wanted)! To pluck an example that highlights the need for press freedom, are we forgetting that, without the work of the Telegraph, the MPs’ expenses scandal would never have been exposed?

Well, possibly. Frankly, for all the sound and fury with respect to state regulation (which everyone seems to assume Leveson will recommend when he reports on Thursday) and its potentially malign impact on investigative journalism, two things stick out like Chris Bryant MP at a meeting of the Self-Effacement Society.

First, where are all these searing and courageous newspaper investigations that speak truth unto power and safeguard, by so doing, our delicate democracy? I see pictures of Kate Middleton a-plenty, Polly Toynbee and Henry Porter saying exactly what you’d expect them to, and Jon Craig wheeled out when required to shout ‘No apology?’ at passing politicians, as is his wont. But investigative journalism I see little. I get that for it to exist, regulation has to be at a minimum and that Gary Glitter-esque articles in the Mail about how a papped fourteen year old looks ‘older than her years’ may well be the price we pay for this. But I don’t see it. I only see invasion into the private lives of individuals under the auspices of public interest and freedom of speech, in order to sate the voyeurism of grubby-handed knicker-sniffers.

This brings me to my second point. Yes, the expenses scandal was covered comprehensively and correctly by the Telegraph. But they didn’t uncover it. Somebody handed them – for a substantial amount of wedge – the unredacted accounts. The decision was subsequently taken, rightly in my view, that politicians couldn’t be trusted to self-regulate in terms of their expenses and so an separate body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, was set up to do so. It was hardly popular among MPs, and continues to be the subject of much whingeing but the fact of the matter is that, even though it might be a single child who poos in the sandpit, the consequence is that everybody has to come out until the mess has been cleared up by responsible adults. That’s life.

I don’t see why the press think that they, unlike politicians, businesses, professionals and individuals, have the right to be exempt from a meaningful code of conduct. I do see that they have a public duty – although, frankly, I see little evidence that they uphold this in any meaningful sense – to be free to report the truth, however unpalatable it might be, and that a free press is vital for the continuation of a democracy.

They are free to report what they like, when they like, and subject who they like to the sort of outrageous intrusion that many witnesses to Leveson reported. This is okay, because they are the guardians of our freedom goes the argument, and everyone from Michael Gove to the nastiest little tabloid apologist has been making this argument against state regulation.

Fine. But then who watches the Watchmen?

Tags: Kate Middleton, Leveson inquiry, Michael Gove MP, Polly Toynbee, Sadie Smith

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