Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Lord Puttnam (Labour)
My Lords, 10 years ago the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, delivered a seminal series of Reith Lectures entitled "A Question of Trust", which quickly become a touchstone for many in your Lordships' House. Had it enjoyed a similar influence on the proprietors and editors of sections of our national press, we would almost certainly not be here this morning. That is because, when it comes to it, this debate is all about trust and the vacuum created when it ceases to exist.
Few of us could possibly have imagined, when the news became public that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked, that the result would be a horrifying and long drawn-out exposure of sections of the UK media-one that has at times beggared belief in the descriptions of criminal behaviour by those who, for many years, had acted as though they were all but untouchable. It is understandable that they had come to feel that way with regard to a self-administered Press Complaints Commission; it is a great deal more troubling in their relationship with "the long arm of the law".
Here was a small but immensely powerful clique of people who appear to have acknowledged no rules other than those that accelerated their personal and political ambitions. More disturbingly, it quickly became evident that this was not simply about an "out of control" media. No, these systemic behavioural patterns, with their pragmatic self-justifications, had leeched far deeper into civil society-into the police and politics and, in fact, into just about every nook and cranny of British public life.
A few years ago, when I was travelling the world with UNICEF, I found myself in countries where the notion of democracy-certainly as we know it-was, to put it mildly, something of an abstraction. At the time I concluded that, so long as a nation could develop a reasonably well-trained, honest and impartial judiciary, it would eventually manage the difficult and sometimes painful transition to a fully functioning nation state. However, the trail of deception, as it began to emerge from the Leveson inquiry, made me begin to question that assumption.
I was forced to come to terms with the fact that once the media, politicians and the police begin to collude with each other, or to discover a shared agenda that is neither transparent nor in the best interests of the public at large, even the finest judiciary in the world is at that point rendered effectively powerless. If there is a toxic triangle of a needy and fragile politics that believes itself to be dependent upon, or is simply in thrall to, an element of the media-an element that in turn has managed to infiltrate the very highest levels of law enforcement-once those relationships have become corrupted, then the game is effectively up for the rest of us. I understood for perhaps the first time that, taken together, these seeming "pillars of society" form an intricate and interrelated ecology, and that the development of malign intent in one leads almost inevitably to the corruption of the others.
Surely I am not alone in feeling angry at the way in which, for well over 20 years and without any apparent sense of irony at the extent of their own mendacious hypocrisy, sections of the media have been exploiting the rest of society-angry at the predatory manner in which they have pounced upon our frailties, exploited our weakness, preyed on our fears, fanned our petty jealousies and trumpeted our inadequacies, all in the guise of freedom of expression. One has only to look at what we now know went on in relation to the Sun's coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy to see it as part of a systemic pattern of behaviour-a pattern of behaviour of an entirely different order from that which the BBC would appear, quite wrongly, to have permitted. It is my most sincere hope that nobody-at least, here in your Lordships' House-will attempt to claim any kind of spurious equivalence between what is alleged at the BBC and the litany of crimes and misdemeanours revealed by the Leveson inquiry. To do so would be the purest humbug.
Why does all this matter? It matters because I believe that Britain, not much over a year ago, came frighteningly close to a kind of silent putsch. Ironically, it was only the tragic death of Milly Dowler and the media frenzy that followed that allowed us to get a good, long, hard look at what had been going on, and most reasonable people discovered that they did not much like what they saw.
I am the son of a newspaper man. I have a blood tie to the notion of a free press that is every bit as great as that of Elisabeth Murdoch. However, as she emphasised in her recent, and altogether excellent, MacTaggart lecture:
"With great power comes great responsibility".
That being unarguably true, the crucial question becomes: has the great power of the press been handled with appropriate levels of responsibility, let alone empathy? Most of the evidence gathered by the Leveson inquiry would suggest that that has been far from the case.
In a speech on Monday, the Prime Minister made the point that personal responsibility lies at the heart of our criminal justice system, and of course he is absolutely right. Similarly, I am sure that I was not the only Member of your Lordships' House to experience an overwhelming sense of admiration at his handling of the Bloody Sunday and, more recently, the Hillsborough apologies. Nor could I have been alone in finding his use of the phrase "double injustice"-a phrase which I understand he personally coined-to be absolutely profound. Surely the political and social catharsis generated by those two announcements should encourage politicians of all parties to see that there are very real alternatives to the traditional world of cover-up and evasion.
Given the lessons learnt from those recent experiences, it seems reasonable to hope that the Prime Minister, having caught the Zeitgeist and understanding the possibilities opened up by a new type of visible justice, will not allow himself to become the latest in that long line of well-intentioned leaders who, when push came to shove, buckled in the face of media intimidation. He has a unique opportunity to take the side of those who want to clean the stables and against those whose sole objective is to continue to make hay in the way they always have done, whereby in their desire to shock and stupefy, they have managed to become the actual enemies of the possibility of social harmony-the type of society we briefly glimpsed during those few magical Olympic and Paralympic weeks.
We have arrived at an important watershed, and Lord Leveson and his colleagues have some difficult and incredibly important judgments to make in the next few weeks. Without the backstop of some form of legislation, whatever system of regulation Lord Leveson recommends can only be as robust and honest as its most reluctant participant, against whom rapid and affordable access to justice must be guaranteed.
I searched the evidence obtained by the inquiry for signs that serious journalists, as they move between print and broadcast media, find the regulatory environment of the latter in any way inhibiting. I could find none. Similarly, if you ask any British editor why American newspapers and magazines, protected as they are by their first amendment rights, continue to employ fact-checkers, you will find it very hard to get a coherent explanation. The truth is that the British press and its editors have to become as accountable as the rest of civil society. They are not a special case and they have only themselves to blame for having lost the argument for exceptionalism and, with it, the right to self-regulation.
In conclusion, I suggested earlier that what we have been encouraged to think of as individual and self-sustaining pillars of freedom are in fact an intricate eco-system, all elements of which are required to prove themselves capable of trust and all of which are required to behave with equal probity, or, quite inevitably, each will infect the other until all have become corrupted.