Last week the Leveson Inquiry reached its peak with David Cameron, George Osborne, Gordon Brown and John Major all giving evidence. The inquiry has been uncomfortable for both politicians and the press, but I think it is a once in a generation opportunity to give good journalism the fresh start it needs and, hopefully, to reverse the decline in newspaper circulations.
Journalism has a crucial role in democratic society. At its best, it challenges the powerful, tests prevailing assumptions, gives voice to a plurality of competing views and provides a forum for national discussion on topical and important issues. If the public are to hold politicians to account at the ballot box, it is essential that they have access to reliable and accurate information. The role of the press is to give them that information.
But those who own the national press have not always been good custodians of journalism and have often elevated the commercial interests of papers above the interests of society. In some cases, they have provided the public with inaccurate information in order to promote their own agenda. Meanwhile, politicians from all parties got too close to newspaper proprietors.
When I was David Cameron’s Press Secretary, we pursued a strategy of quietly puncturing the arrogance of both editors and proprietors, and raising the status of what I termed real journalism. We wanted to take some of the swagger out of the press. We would spend less time having editors over for dinner but instead deal with journalists writing the stories and there would be fewer exclusive briefings to favoured papers. We were not going to pick a fight with the press, but we hoped that by behaving differently we could gradually change the culture in a way that would be healthier for all. But when a political party is subjected to a negative media frenzy, it is hard to ignore.
There is not much wrong with the Editors' Code which was used by the former Press Complaints Commission, the problem is that it was not really observed properly by some of the national newspapers. The phone hacking scandal and the widespread use of an illegal market in personal information happened because the definition of what is in the “public interest” has been too elastic and all too often has meant what the papers wanted it to mean, rather than being independently enforced.
I think that local and regional papers, like the Western Morning News, have done better and approached the Editors' Code conscientiously. They take complaints seriously, are much closer to their communities and tend to steer clear of gratuitous personal attacks. While they have clear views on issues, they tend to be more careful about taking sides politically because they need to appeal to the whole community. In contrast, I think that some national newspapers have regarded themselves as being above the Press Complaints Commission which has landed them in this mess.
If journalism is to operate in the public interest, it needs a credible public interest test. This will not only protect society but also journalists by giving them a valid defence in law for crossing boundaries to expose genuine wrongdoing or corruption. While I am sceptical about having a statutory regulator of press content, there is a powerful argument for some statutory underpinning to make self regulation actually work this time. For example, an auditor given powers to ensure that newspapers followed basic internal compliance procedures before invading someone’s privacy would be a step forward. But it is a difficult balance to get right and Lord Leveson has his work cut out.