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Freedom of the press vs. privacy rights

By Ruth Howells, on 17 February 2012

The focus of the seventh UCL Laws/Bindmans debate, held on 8 February, would have struggled to be more topical against the backdrop of the ongoing Leveson Inquiry.

The Inquiry was set up to look at the practices and ethics of the press in the wake of Summer 2011’s phone-hacking scandal, which sent shockwaves through the UK media – the full repercussions of which are yet to play out.

The panel convened by UCL Laws and the law firm Bindmans to debate privacy and the media would have struggled to have a greater level of combined insight into the topic.

Media heavyweights

Tessa Jowell, Labour MP and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, joined Martin Moore, Director of the Media Standards Trust, and Gill Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services at the Guardian. The fourth panel member was Max Mosley, former motorsport figure and focus of one of the most famous recent examples of a media-driven sex life exposé.

An audience of lawyers, law students and journalists gathered to hear what the panel had to say about the issues surrounding self or statutory regulation of the press, how the current system might be reformed and whether regulation is possible or desirable.

We’ve been here before

Lord Justice Leveson is not the first to have looked in detail at these issues. In the early 90s, the Calcuttt committee grappled with the topic, with David Mellor saying at the time that the press were “drinking in the last chance saloon.”

Some might say that they’re still there, steadfastly propping up the bar – resistant to any change and knowing that parliament will be unwilling to legislate when they risk association with oppressive regimes – especially when they have themselves been in the pockets of the media barons.

Tessa Jowell, herself a victim of phone hacking by the “monsters” at News International, said that this was “a moment in time to try and get a better settlement between the press and the public”, as events last year had cast the bright light of public concern on the issue.

She passionately believes in a free press – recognising that the alternative is far worse – but thinks that the status quo is unsustainable. There needs to be a much clearer understanding of what is ok in the pursuit of a story and what is not.

Any new system has to be free from the control of both politicians and editors, offer redress not just to the rich and powerful and take account of the acceleration of new technologies. She feels that media literacy is the key and will, ultimately, lead to the public demanding a better press.

Privacy vs. public interest

Martin Moore went on to say that it’s easy to get engrossed in the present, but that we need to step back when it comes to privacy, as it’s far bigger than just the press. The growth of social media means practical social boundaries in our lives have been eroded – as Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “the age of privacy is over”.

There is privacy protection within the Human Rights Act and, although there are issues with its application, it broadly works. Mark thinks that the key thing is how we protect the right of the journalist to intrude when it is in the public interest.

There is no consensus on what constitutes public interest and he feels that that’s what we desperately need: “We shouldn’t be asking for a privacy law, we should be asking for a clear definition of the public interest defence.”

Democracy and a free press

Gill Phillips began by saying that the state of a democracy can be measured by the health of its press. She does not believe in central/statutory regulation but still agrees something needs to change.

She did, however, ask for some perspective – saying that phone hacking came down to the criminality of one single paper. (The murmur that travelled through the audience suggested that others don’t feel it’s quite as simple as that.)

Gill talked about the historical examples of attempts to regulate the press – a testament to the instinct of those in power to wield control over it. A free press took many years to establish and Gill does not think that top-down regulation is the answer.

Max Mosley began by emphasising that no-one disputes the need for a free press, or wants a press that is controlled by government. He is in favour of a statute, saying that the PCC is generally fair in its rulings, but has no means to enforce them.

An enforcing body?

Max’s suggestion is to separate out the rule-making body from the enforcing body, in the form of a tribunal independent of government and press, but with the power to enforce rulings.

He also thinks public interest should be defined broadly with a number of exemptions, among them medical records and (unsurprisingly) sex life. People who are poised to be exposed by the press should be warned in advance and there should be a means of stopping publication.

All the speakers had very interesting, varied contributions to make and there was still plenty of time for the audience to ask questions.

One such question focused on how we protect vulnerable groups from tabloid vitriol – with reader power and a free means of recourse being suggested by the panellists.

Max Mosley was also asked more about his tribunal idea and said the expense of such a system could be lessened by lawyers working part-time for free – drawing some sniggers from the audience.

The issue of protecting privacy on the internet was also raised, with Tessa Jowell making an interesting, contrasting point – that one of the worst consequences of campaigning journalism was the Daily Mail and the MMR vaccine 15 years ago. The internet means that it is much easier to loudly provide balance and opposing views to these kind of campaigns.

As Leveson continues to churn out reams of evidence, it will be fascinating to see if the inquiry leads to changes in the UK media landscape. This event encapsulated the complexity of the issues at the heart of this debate – and the difficulties inherent in finding solutions.

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