MPs, ignore David Cameron and vote for a free press

Independent on Sunday, 17 March 2013

We all believe in a free press, don’t we? But if I’ve learned anything over the course of the Leveson inquiry, it’s that it means different things to different people. Take the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, who boasted that it meant doing what he liked and not checking sources. He used his freedom to produce an untrue front-page story which claimed that Liverpool fans urinated on police officers and picked the pockets of dying fellow supporters during the Hillsborough disaster. “The Truth”, MacKenzie called it in a brazen headline.

Another Sun luminary, associate editor Trevor Kavanagh, offered a dire warning after the Prime Minister abruptly withdrew from cross-party talks on press regulation last week. “Without a free press, we will suffer ever more suffocating bureaucracy and more undiscovered corruption in our public life,” he thundered. Could he offer an example? Indeed her could: “Think of the Hillsborough cover-up.” Consistency? How are you spelling that?

Here’s another example of press freedom, courtesy of the Daily Mail. Banner headlines about men falsely accused of rape have created the impression that it’s a common occurrence. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Director of Public Prosecutions pointed out last week, but the myth gets in the way of successful prosecutions. That’s why third-party complaints are essential in any new scheme of press regulation, and a key Leveson recommendation. They would also allow members of the public to challenge exploitative images of women, such as the Sun‘s notorious front-page picture of Reeva Steenkamp after she was killed by Oscar Pistorius.

The impact of this material appearing in newspapers every day is a serious social issue, but Cameron’s royal charter would allow very few third-party complaints to get to the new regulator. He would leave ethics to right-wing editors who have failed to enforce standards in the industry, allowing the phone-hacking scandal to scar its reputation. What he’s proposing is a regulatory system so weak and industry-friendly that it’s a close relation of the discredited Press Complaints Commission.

There’s apoplexy in some parts of the industry at the notion that anyone else, whether working journalist or victim of intrusion, be involved in a debate about biased reporting, misogyny and attacks on asylum seekers. But if papers want to continue publishing this stuff, why shouldn’t they expect to be challenged, like any other vested interest? Their biggest defender is a weak PM who seems to have forgotten the public interest and devoted himself to watering down Leveson’s quite modest proposals.

We both know how powerful the right-wing press is, and I knew the risk I was taking when I decided to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry. But I believe in a free press that holds the powerful to account, and is not merely a slogan to deflect criticism of  inexcusable behaviour. I hope MPs will bear that in mind when they vote tomorrow night.


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