Published on February 4, 2013 | by ALN News Team0
Leveson offers ‘best chance for free press’
By: Morgana Edwards, Myriah Towner & Siss Andersen
The Leveson Inquiry in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal presents Britain’s best opportunity for a ‘bill of rights’ protecting the freedom of the press, according to legendary former editor of The Sunday Times, Sir Harry Evans.
Speaking at the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture hosted by the London College of Communication, Sir Harry said that the first paragraph of Leveson’s recommendations promise that parliament should not interfere with the freedom of the press, thus statutory underpinning is acceptable if this principle is established.
During the lecture, Evans also said that the Leveson Inquiry should be regarded as “an opportunity, not as a threat”, and hit back at Fleet Street’s “cynical misrepresentation” of what Leveson recommended.
Statutory underpinning would mean that the law should be changed to ensure the press could continue operating freely and effectively.
Under this plan an Ofcom-style body would act as a regulator – independent from the press.
The difference between this and the current system, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), would be that neither serving editors nor government officials would be able to work for the new body.
“This is now the seventh time there’s been an attempt to reform the press and every one has failed.” Former Sunday Times editor, Sir Harry Evans
Speaking to the ALN after the lecture, Evans went on to discuss the need for a more defiant reform of the press system in Britain.
He said: “I appreciate the vigour of the British press, but I find the invasion of privacy – which will occur again and again – intolerable, and can only be stopped by vigorous action.
“This is now the seventh time there’s been an attempt to reform the press and every one has failed. This one, if it is adopted, is the best way for the press to restore its esteem in the public eye.”
Regulators and regulation
Speaking at last year’s event, Channel 4 broadcaster Jon Snow also spoke on tighter regulations on newspapers and their proprietors. He said a regulatory body that was separate from the press was needed.
Snow said: “Until now, the written press has suffered from not having a proper regulator. We must get away from the PCC and exclude serving editors.”
Evans referred to the main issue that had dominated the Leveson inquiry and called attention to the broader problems in press ethics.
Evans explained how the exposure of the scandal of phones being hacked by journalists at the News of the World to obtain information, which he referred to as the “dark arts”, was “deepened by the cynicism and arrogance of much of the reaction to Leveson.”
He continued: “This is coming from figures in the press who did nothing to penetrate – indeed whose inertia assisted – the cover-up conducted into oblivion by News International, a cover-up which would have continued but for the skill of Nick Davies and the courage of his editor [Alan Rusbridger].”
Evans’ speech was met by varied reactions from the audience, which was largely attended by leading names in the British press, as well as journalism students from LCC.
Many agreed that the need for change to legislature in the UK would be necessary in securing the future and integrity of the British press.
“The reason so many people got away with horrible fraud and God knows what, is because you couldn’t say what you knew about them.” Former Sunday Express editor, Brian Hitchen
Brian Hitchen, former editor of the Daily Star and Sunday Express said: “I do believe we need a proper act guaranteeing our freedom because we have never had one.
“Britain is a holiday camp for everybody wanting to come and sue us because the laws of libel are so terrible, and the reason so many people got away with horrible fraud and God knows what, is because you couldn’t say what you knew about them.”
This line of thought is fresh in the minds of many in the media as a result of recent turmoil the press has faced following the discovery of phone hacking.
Philip Jacobson, former reporter for The Sunday Times also spoke to ALN at the event and agreed that the speech was “really right on the mark”.
Danger of laws
There were others, however, that disagreed with Evans’ analysis that the press needed legislative intervention in outlining its regulation.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, acknowledged Evans’ desire to ensure freedom for the press but he also saw the dangers in creating laws that set out press regulation with the UK having an unwritten constitution. He said: “I had to disagree with him [Evans] about what he now calls ‘SU’; statutory underpinning.
“He is absolutely right when he says that what’s on offer is a guarantee of the freedom of the press and no interference. That would be wonderful, that’s what they have in the United States, but what they also have in the United States, is a written constitution. The constitution can be changed, but it is far more difficult.”
Satchwell went on to say that the problem in the UK is that if a law exists preventing the government and parliament to interfere with the freedom of the press: “there is still a ‘but’ behind it. The ‘but’ is that you must accept a new, independent form of self-regulation,” he said.
“That is why in the United States they never had a Press Complaints Commission because it would be unconstitutional, and that’s the ‘but’. And the ‘but’ is very, very big.”
Force for badEvans also said the Leveson report did not have anything to say on media ownership.
“Securing the plurality essential for discourse may be complicated in the digital age, but constraints of time are no excuse for glossing over the demonstrable effects of media concentration,” Evans said.
Jacobson discussed the power of media ownership and agreed with Evans about the dangers of individuals and organisations monopolising the media.
Commenting on Evans’ speech, Jacobson said: “I liked his acknowledgment of James Harding – the former editor of The Times – who was doing a very good job, very popular with his staff but Rupert [Murdoch] got rid of him because he didn’t fit the face anymore.
“When you are an editor for Murdoch, you walk the plank if you take a chance and you oppose him, which is a pity but that’s how it is. Until we get a law on the concentration of media, which would mean Rupert would have to drop at least one of his papers, it’s not going to change. I think Rupert is a force for bad.”
Pioneering investigative journalism
Regardless of their views of his attitudes towards changes to press regulation, all in attendance agreed on Evans’ staggering contribution to the development of the modern British press.
Evans began his journalistic career at 16 and served as editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981.
Evans is credited with developing the paper’s reputation for strong, pioneering investigative journalism, which is still synonymous with the paper today. As well as being a notable part of guiding The Sunday Times to become one of the best selling newspapers in Britain.
“It is obviously a huge honour to win something that is associated with Hugh Cudlipp. He’s a legend of journalism.” Cudlipp Award winner, Simon Murphy
Several esteemed guests spoke of their respect and admiration for Evans as they revered him as a legend of British journalism.
Christine Benson, a television documentary filmmaker agreed with his suggestions for press regulation.
She said: “I think Harry Evans is the noblest, and the most principled, and the best editor that the country has ever had. To hear him with this point of view was just so wonderful, I can’t tell you. It was the right thing to say, at the right time, and it needed an editor of his calibre to say it.”
At the lecture, the annual Hugh Cudlipp Award for Student Journalism was presented to Simon Murphy, 23 an MA Newspaper Journalism graduate from City University London.
Murphy gained recognition for his work while undertaking a six-week placement at The Guardian. He successfully pitched the idea for a story about gambling and addiction.
He spoke to ALN about the significance of the prize to him: “It is obviously a huge honour to win something that is associated with Hugh Cudlipp. He’s a legend of journalism. Journalists idolise him.
“It is a privilege to win this, especially when there are so many great people here. A lot of Fleet Street royalty,” he said.
About the Cudlipp lectures
- Held at the LCC, in 2013 the annual event celebrates pioneering tabloid journalist Hugh Cudlipp’s centenary.
- Lord Hugh Cudlipp, born in 1913, was appointed editor of The Daily Mirror in 1938 and revolutionised popular journalism.
- The previous speakers at the event – always chosen as a high-profile media industry figure – have included Andrew Marr, Paul Dacre and Jon Snow.
- The lecture always is presented on an actively developing issue in today’s news media.