‘On the Media’ was an apt title for Wednesday night’s debate at the Frontline Club. An impressive panel explored three key challenges facing the modern British press: privacy protection, super injunctions and phone hacking. Chaired by BBC Radio 4’s Clive Coleman, the panel consisted of: David Aaronovitch, who writes for The Times; William Bennett, a barrister at 5RB chambers; Peter Oborne, chief political commentator at the Telegraph; and David Allen Green, a lawyer and New Statesman correspondent.
Clive Coleman launched the event by asking some pertinent questions. First of all, he wanted to know how we reached this point, and whether the media should really “fear” injunctions as they do. His second question was the broader one of “who runs Britain”. Was it Parliament, the judiciary, the press or the EU?, Coleman asked.
Much was made of the interaction between legal and ethical standards in the media. As David Allen Green astutely pointed out, phone hacking only became an “issue” when it was explicitly prohibited by law. David Aaronovitch took pains to impress that the practice had always been unethical, irrespective of its legal consequences. Drawing a stark contrast between print and broadcast journalism, he lamented the decline in adherence to moral standards. He claimed that many journalists took the view that anything was justified in the name of selling papers, provided they didn’t get caught.
David Allen Green used this to illustrate his point that journalists have generally taken a fairly laissez-faire approach towards both privacy and legality. The introduction of court orders made these boundaries harder to cross. Carrying on from that point, Peter Oborne expressed his “sympathy” for injunctions and belief in upholding the rule of law. That, he claimed, is ultimately what should run Britain. He decried John Hemming’s acts as a “shameful” abuse of parliamentary privilege.
Coleman suggested that such acts constitute a “recipe for melting privacy injunctions”. David Allen Green defended the use of such court orders in certain circumstances. He argued that everyone is entitled to a “private space”, including ‘politicians and even prisoners’. Answering a question about judicial subjectivity, he said that “if we are taking privacy seriously, a judge is in a better position (to decide what is in the public interest) than the newspapers, who have a vested interest”.
In charting the development of so-called privacy law, Coleman questioned whether attitudes towards privacy were cyclical. He referred to the “more serious newspaper culture” of the 1960s, then the public outcry at The Sun’s reporting on Elton John in the 1980s. He suggested that by the time of the Gorden Kaye decision many felt that people had “too much privacy”. (David Allen Green pointed out that because that case was decided on the basis of malicious falsehood, there was no pressing need to create a privacy law.)
The “cyclical” theory seems difficult to defend in the current climate, as there does not seem to be a general consensus. We are faced with the question of where to draw the line between over protecting privacy (and constraining freedom of expression) and invading it through unethical practices like phone hacking. From the audience, Martin Moore proposed that there should be a public inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. This went largely unanswered, but led to an illuminating discussion of settlements. William Bennett described early settlements as “hush money”, again insinuating low ethical standards.
But how are these standards to be enforced? The Press Complaints Commission was roundly derided as “utterly pointless” and “completely pathetic”. The final question, on the future of the PCC, was presumably a response to the panellists’ earlier remarks that the PCC was “just laughed at” if it was listened to at all. David Aaronovitch said that it needed to be “beefed up”, whilst Peter Oborne called for a judicial review of the press.
This comment brought an end to an evening of thought-provoking, and occasionally fiery, exchanges on the state of the media today.