by Peter Watt
I know a bit about the impact of aggressive press activity. Back in 2008 when I resigned as general secretary of the Labour party it was pretty big news. The story revolved around me. For the first few days (it could’ve been a week) there were journalists outside our home, TV trucks in the street and people trying to climb into our back garden to see if we were in but not answering the door.
Luckily the whole family, including our very young children, had shot off to stay with relatives before they arrived. We had to move twice over the next few weeks. The neighbours had their doors knocked but they all closed ranks and wouldnt talk to the media. At one point my wife, Vilma, had to go home to collect some clothes; she went into our neighbours’ house so that she could go into our house unseen by the media via our back door. While she was in the neighbours’ house a journalist knocked on the door and asked her if she knew the neighbours – i.e. us!
Friends were contacted to comment via Facebook and my wider family were phoned at home and work. One newspaper offered a large sum of money to someone to both comment and let them know where I was.
Someone else told me to change the PIN on my voicemail which I did and changed my phone as well. Friends eventually told us when the media had gone; it took a while as for a further week or so after most had left, there was a pooled journalist constantly on guard.
Even after that there would be someone knocking on the door at least once a week. All in all, it was a pretty grim experience that went on for a couple of months with someone even turning up at our door on Boxing Day. For months we had to ban the kids from answering the door.
So I know what serious intrusion into your life by an aggressive persistent media feels like. The truth is that unless you have actually gone through it then it is actually hard to imagine just how frightening and destabilising it really is.
You may well think that it was all fair game in my case as the story was a major one. You may well be right. But whatever, the impact on me, but more importantly on my family, was considerable – one of my children was bullied at school for instance. Vilma was pregnant and we were worried about the impact of the tremendous stress on hers’ and the baby’s health.
So you might assume that I am pleased that post hacking it looks like Lord Leveson may well recommend a serious tightening of press regulation. But I am not; in fact I am actually really worried about it.
It is obviously clear that there were some serious abuses by a whole range of media outlets over recent years. Phone and email hacking were illegal and yet seemingly rife. Cheque book journalism appears to have involved paying public officials to illegally pass information over to media outlets. And that is before some of the impacts of the over-closeness between parts of the media and politicians are considered.
If you are someone with little power, little money and you fell afoul of the worst excesses of the media, then you had (indeed have) little protection and virtually no chance of redress.
But the freedoms of the press are very precious and once they are eroded then it may be difficult to push back. Media outlets should, as far as possible be free to make their own editorial decisions.
There are already laws and regulations that govern our newspapers and hacking is and was illegal. State regulation, however well intended, would be a curtailment of press freedom. It would risk limiting the vital scrutiny role that the media play in our informal system of checks and balances. The challenging of those with power, wealth and influence may well become more difficult. And let’s remember that broadcast media is heavily regulated, the BBC particularly so, but regulation didn’t stop Newsnight royally screwing up recently!
However, the existing system of voluntary regulation clearly failed to challenge the newspaper culture that allowed Milly Dowler’s phone to be hacked. But that does not mean that a system of state control is the answer. Certainly stronger and more robust processes are needed. It should be easier for people to get more prominent retractions when stories are printed that are wrong.
Support for people who have been libelled may well need looking at. There needs to be a better balance so that an individual’s privacy can be better protected. I certainly hope that Lord Leveson will have something to say in these areas.
But I also hope that he will stop short of a system of state imposed regulation. He should recognise that maintaining a vibrant, varied media is an essential part of our democracy. That with the internet, things can never be the same – already we have the situation where if a newspaper or TV/radio outlet don’t show something or edit out details then you can fill in the blanks using Google!
The hacking investigation and the Leveson inquiry has already had a significant impact on the operation and culture of the printed media. Simple market forces are likely to mean that the number of national newspapers will reduce, it’s already happening to local titles. The internet is providing more and more “citizen scrutiny,”, and that is a good thing. But it is not a substitute for in depth investigative journalism.
So I hope, for the sake of our democracy that Lord Leveson recommends a balanced package and that he resists the calls of those who want the press neutered. We forget at our peril the importance and also the fragility of the freedoms that we have. And a free press is a freedom that we should not give up in the wake of understandable moral outrage at the behaviour and culture of some newsrooms.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party