Yesterday I took part in packed Guardian debate to discuss how the press can restore public trust in the wake of the hacking scandal. On the panel with me were Carl Bernstein, the legendary investigative journalist who led the exposure of the Watergate scandal in the US, Sylvie Kauffman, from Le Monde and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian.
It proved to be something of a role reversal for both myself and the audience of budding journalists and Guardian Media types. For the Guardian set, there was much hand wringing about the perceived unbridled power of Rupert Murdoch and those awful tabloids but a stubborn reluctance to countenance better regulation to deal with that power. Meanwhile, as a Conservative, I am ideologically opposed to excessive regulation but, after spending four years dealing with the fourth estate while head of media at the Conservative Party, reluctantly concluded that it was the only answer to restore some kind of accountability to our media.
People do not own national newspapers to make money – most papers make a loss. Newspapers are generally owned by people who made their money doing something else but own papers because, rightly or wrongly, they think it buys them status or, perhaps, influence. That can’t be healthy.
Carl Bernstein opposed any form of code which sought to require standards of accuracy or even truth in newspapers, saying that this would be tantamount to a “truth commission”. However, the only reason that newspapers are feared is that they have the unbridled power to print things that are untrue and to create, as the great propagandist Walter Lipman put it, a “pseudo-environment” of information which enables the opinion of the masses to be “regimented” in a particular way. Journalism should aspire to do better than that.
We can’t go on with a situation where the closest thing we have to accountability for the media is Private Eye’s 'Street of Shame' column. My argument is that journalists have nothing to fear from a properly enforced code of conduct backed up by sanctions because it would enhance the status of their profession. In my four years working at close quarters with the media, I saw frequent instances where “hatchet job” stories which were known to be untrue by their writers appeared in print, often for no better reason than the fact that an editor had thrown a tantrum because the party had just given a particular announcement to a rival paper and they felt they needed to extract revenge. What a betrayal of their readers.
In the early days of David Cameron’s leadership, we pursued a strategy that sought to deal with this. We believed that if politicians were less craven about courting the media but instead were a little more aloof, you could rebalance the culture and politely puncture media arrogance and re-calibrate their position within democratic society. So there were to be fewer exclusive briefings handed out like sweets, fairer treatment for papers who were not our natural allies, shrill leader columns were to be ignored as one would ignore a child’s tantrum and we would spend less time courting editors and proprietors over dinner but instead have a cup of tea with the journalists working at the coal face. We had some early successes but in the end if foundered when Gordon Brown arrived because, while technically weak, he was the most craven media tart of them all and the media lapped it up and gave him a honeymoon.
The phone hacking scandal means that people are, for the first time, willing to question the unbridled power of the media. The days of accountability applying to everyone except the newspapers themselves might finally be over and both journalism and democracy could be stronger as a result.