Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Time for change

Over the last month, the media – and Parliament - has been dominated by the stories about criminal and unethical behaviour by the News of the World over the last decade.

It has involved telephone- and computer-hacking, unlawful payments to police officers and blagging confidential information. Neither the stories nor the information are new. Much of the evidence has been around over the last eight years. But, the issue only sparked into international life when it was revealed that Millie Dowler’s phone had been hacked, almost certainly after she had been murdered.

The renewed investigations have already claimed the jobs of senior police officers, media bosses, journalists and David Cameron’s press spokesman. But, I think the whole story has a long way to run as the Metropolitan Police now seem finally to be getting to grips with an investigation. But, who knows how much evidence has already been consigned to shredders and whose silence has been bought?

It is difficult to believe that it is only News International journalists who were involved. The Information Commissioner’s 2006 investigation What Price Privacy Now? reported that 58 journalists from the Daily Mail had paid a firm of private investigators, specialising in blagging- and hacking-, in 952 transactions. Surely they weren’t doing that just to ask them to find their lost car keys?

Public faith in the media has been shaken to the core. It is time for a change. But, already, the media is campaigning against any shake-up, arguing that there wouldn’t be any problems if the police just investigated allegations of wrong-doing properly.

I’m sorry, but that won’t do. Neither is it simply a choice is not between (failed) self-regulation and state regulation, which is not the hallmark of a democratic society. But, we do need to find the best balance between regulation externally imposed by the law and that imposed by the media industry itself.

We must give ordinary citizens proper redress for defamatory statements, an apology and correction, enforced by a regulator. We do need to decide how far the law should constrain the publication of facts about people’s private lives. We do need to find a way in which ordinary people normally have a right to put their side of the case before they are improperly castigated.

Further, as an international society, we need to find ways of addressing these issues in the internet world, where a lie can be published and have travelled several times round the world before the victim is aware and, however untruthful or malicious, finds it virtually impossible to redress.

It won’t be easy, but it has to be done.