Labour should champion good “producer” journalism

by Carl Packman

At the start of last week many people were tuning in to watch the Lords debate the health and social bill. But at the same time, the House of Lords communications committee hosted a hearing attended by Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, the Guardian editor Alan Rushbridger and investigative journalist Nick Davies.

Up for discussion was what Roy Greenslade, writing for the Evening Standard, noted as the three things that haunt journalism: budget constraints, press freedom and regulation and libel laws. On the first of those, Alan Rushbridger mentioned that 70% of what is seen in the Guardian can be found free online, while in ten to 15 years’ time many towns will be without a local newspaper. For the most part, the panel were at pains not to do down the work of unpaid bloggers and citizen journalists. But, as they were keen to address, investigative reportage often costs money and takes time that volunteers often don’t have.

On the second thing to haunt journalism today – press freedom – Ian Hislop complained that Article 8 of the human rights act, respect for private and family life, has too much swing against Article 10, the freedom of expression. Nick Davies fantasised about throwing defamation law “in the river” and starting again “with a blank slate with statute law”. Balancing the right to privacy with free speech is one issue, but the other is how this fares in the eyes of the law.

This feeds into the subject of libel, one hot potato that has reached near consensus, but where reform has still not taken off. As the truism goes, nobody wins in a libel case when you consider court fees, time spared and the collation of counter-evidence while trying to go about normal life. Whichever side you find yourself on, such suits are an inevitable burden, potentially catastrophic financially and a major concern for journalists and bloggers alike.

A sea change of near revolutionary proportions is necessary. And it is where Labour could potentially define itself against the Tory-Lib Dem government. First, Labour should champion varied budget types for local journalism in order to salvage accessible print investigative reportage. David Levy of the Reuters institute, which authored a recent report on funding streams, proposed at the Lords committee that news organisations be given charitable status to ensure reasonable budgets. As Jamie Thunder, a PhD student at City university and freelance journalist, told me, “there is no commercial benefit for newspapers to fund investigative journalism, it’s expensive, and it doesn’t always show results”. But despite this, good journalism can provide the sort of accountability that we often cannot trust our elected representatives to deliver.

The second thing Labour are well positioned to do is aim to define “public interest”. At the moment, as many have commented, the term is ill-defined, and since the News of the World scandal, which was considered a real high point for Ed Miliband’s leadership, is open to debate again. And, to use how Ed has defined businesses, there are also “predator and producer” journalists. The latter fearing that they will be tarred with the same brush as the former. Better definition of what is a right to know and what is a right to privacy, with due attention to ensure the least amount of harm is done to any party, along with with independent regulation, would surely be a worthy goal.

Lastly, Labour needs to be the voice of libel reform. Jack Straw, speaking on the campaign to reform libel law, said: “I am not proud of reading, as I frequently do, that ‘London is the libel capital of the world’. I do not regard it as a badge of honour”. Some promising work had been started by Straw when he was a minister. Now, more than ever, the party should be shouting this from the rooftops and pressuring the government to act. It is apparent that radical change is needed, and the debates are beginning again. This is Labour’s opportunity to show more leadership.

Carl Packman runs the blog Though Cowards Flinch

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2 Responses to “Labour should champion good “producer” journalism”

  1. swatantra says:

    The Press are onto a losing wicket. Citizen journalists are the way they will all eventually have to go. Soon we shall be seeing the WikiGrauniad and the WikiES. We already have a WikiPrivateEye, the rag that is put together by a bunch of amateurs calling themselves journalists. How they’ve managed to get away with it for 40 years escapes me. Citize Journalists are investigative and come cheap in most cases for nothing. Blogs and comments pages and letters to papers are infact halfway to a WikiPaper because they modify what the paid jounalist has written.
    But ‘public interest’ should overide ‘privacy’. Papers are fully aware that if they get the facts wrong there willbe heavy damages to pay, and that generally keeps them in line.

  2. Maldwyn Dobbs says:

    Because the press find it easy to pick on whoever they choose then i would say it is okay to go after politicians who have clearly abused their position but to go after the general public to destroy a persons life is a step too far, this is why we need privacy.

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