The recent phone hacking scandal has thrown into sharp relief a corrupt nexus: between media organisations (I use the plural advisedly) that consider themselves above the law; a craven police culture that makes it effectively so; and a body politic so in thrall to that same media power it’s unable to distance itself from those responsible for illegal activity, much less hold the press to account. As enquiry after enquiry ensues, we seek the reform of the press, of the police and of politics, the need for which has rarely been clearer; we must also seek to strike a balance between free enquiry and individual rights to privacy and a reputation, and here we should pay heed to lessons learned from the campaign to reform our outdated libel laws. Should we instead be tempted into hasty knee-jerk legislation in the light of criminal and illiberal elements within society – and I refer here to immoral so-called journalists but this applies to the aftermath of the riots too – we may find the very freedoms we wish to protect eroded.
Concerning free expression and privacy, currently it appears as though there are two sets of rules. There’s one for the small-fry independent blogger or writer setting out opinion (often backed up by fact), and another entirely for Machiavellian mega-corporations for whom the ends – a juicy headline or protected profits – justify the means, no matter whose privacy they invade, whose free speech they chill or which laws they break.
Both in reforming our libel laws and with regards to the right to privacy, we need to enact a broadly liberal principle: the right to a private life and that of redress for those that have their reputation and livelihoods damaged are only of value when matters of genuine public interest are debated freely and without fear of persecution.
It’s precisely this recognition of where the limits to free expression lie, set as liberally as can be without infringing on either free debate or privacy rights, that needs to be accounted for in the context of media regulation and ownership. In the wake of the revelations about illegal phone hacking, and the patent failure of self-regulation, it would be tempting to replace the defunct Press Complaints Commission with overbearing State-directed regulation. This way lies illiberal political control over the press, replacing media barons who set the political agenda with political overlords of the press – equally unacceptable. So the truly independent regulation of the media that’s advocated by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg must the way forward.
Equally when it comes to ownership, it’s clear that a simple mathematical calculus of market share isn’t sufficient to foster a free, independent and high-quality media sector. We need to revisit whether particular organisations or individuals are qualitatively up to the task of owning media interests, something that has a corollary in whether companies should be able to sue for libel. Both are issues less about the size of an organisation than about the power it wields and how that is put to use.
There are lessons to be learned then from the libel reform campaign, which if applied to the reform of press regulation will ensure that the free and open discourse that underpins a healthy democracy can flourish.