Opinion: Privacy and investigative journalism – a balancing act

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rights to privacy and a reputation, and here we should pay heed to lessons learned from the campaign to reform our outdated libel laws.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.

Read more by or more about , , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.
Bookmark the web address for this page or use the short url http://ldv.org.uk/25048 for Twitter and emails.

One Comment

  • Daniel Henry 24th Aug '11 - 5:32pm

    Didn’t Lord McNally say he was putting his reputation on reforming libel laws? Any update on his work on this?

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?




Recent Comments

  • User AvatarMatthew Huntbach 24th Oct - 12:54pm
    Malcolm Todd But ascribing to your opponents motives for which at best there is no evidence and at worst are directly contradicted by the evidence...
  • User AvatarMatthew Huntbach 24th Oct - 12:48pm
    Marc Your words on tuition fees suggest you don’t wish to confront the depth of the betrayal many people feel towards the LibDems over this...
  • User AvatarStephen Hesketh 24th Oct - 12:41pm
    @Simon McGrath24th Oct '14 - 11:11am "William – because a) renwables are (at least at the moment) much more expensive than gas b) virtually all...
  • User AvatarMalcolm Todd 24th Oct - 12:39pm
    I think, Matthew, that you're falling into the trap of what Terry Pratchett memorably characterised as "believing that all the Orcs must come from Mordor"...
  • User AvatarSimon McGrath 24th Oct - 12:32pm
    @john Tilley Solar power is not cheap - it (currently) requires high subsidies. Otherwise (capitalism and self interest being very effective at changing behaviour) we...
  • User AvatarBill le Breton 24th Oct - 12:30pm
    Intriguing. If Alex Salmond knows anything about Sheila Ritchie, he will give Gordon a wide berth.