In the light of a number of recent high profile complaints about invasion of privacy, critically assess whether or not the UK press should continue to be self-regulating. The immediacy of broadcast news meant that newspapers were defunct as first-hand news providers. Declining readership meant that competition was fierce as newspapers had to rethink their function. Emphasis shifted towards entertainment, especially in the tabloids, and the more salacious the story, the more readers.
With new titles like the Daily Star in 1978 and the Sport/Sunday Sport in 1987 also vying for readers, journalists were forced to look for ‘exclusives’ often involving the private lives of celebrities, politicians – and where there was a good story – members of the public. The event that changed the publics view of the press once and for all, according to Brian McNair, was the coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The Sun was “the main offender”, alleging that drunken Liverpool fans had harassed the police and abused the bodies of the victims.
As Chippendale and Horrie put it, Hillsborough was “an unparalleled journalistic disaster” for the Sun. Such incidents amassed many complaints against the press, however there was no official regulatory body or formal codes of practice. The Press Council, which was established in 1953, had the aim to “maintain high ethical standards of journalism and promote press freedom” (www. pcc. org. uk/students/info3. htm). However, it was soon criticised for its ineffectiveness in dealing with certain complaints as it had no statutory power and no money.
After the report by David Clacutt, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was established in 1991. The Press Complaints Commission sees itself as successful because “The Code [of Practice] is, crucially, the industry’s own Code”. Its website boasts about the “clear, consistent framework” that the Code provides when dealing with complaints, whilst “ensuring a moral commitment to it by the press”. In his report the Chairman of the PCC, Lord Wakeham states that “huge advances” have been made on the central issue of privacy.
He “is certain that the first question any editor asks him or herself is “can I justify this if challenged? ” And if they can’t they won’t publish”. However what Lord Wakeham fails to acknowledge is that some of the editors who make up the Code Committee, have asked themselves that very same question, but have still published. An article by Alex Renton – who had breached four clauses of the Code of conduct – cites the example of Neil Wallis, editor of the Sunday People who is also on the Code Committee.
“[Wallis] was still refusing to apologise for his campaign early this year to have the boys who killed James Bulger kept in jail indefinitely. A court has ruled that the social services documents printed by Wallis to support his case were crude fakes. ” Neil Wallis was on the committee that adjudicated Alex Renton’s case and although he accepts that he was justly punished, he feels that it was “by an authority for which I have no respect. Clipped round the ear by a copper who’s on the take. ” (Alex Renton, 22 July 2001, The Observer).
He also states that in the last five years the number of complaints to the PCC has dropped by 25% and quotes Mike Jempson, of the media ethics organisation PressWise as saying “I think people realise that the PCC is about protecting the publishers, not the people”. If this is the case then there need to be some changes in the way that the press is regulated. When discussing press regulation, the relationship between freedom of speech, the public’s right to know, and the fundamental right to privacy are complex topics.
At the Annual Conference of the Society of Editors, the Leader of the Opoosition, the Rt Hon William Hague, stated: “Our country has a great and vibrant tradition of a free and pluralist press and media… [which] has underpinned and complemented our democratic institutions… an essential component of a free society” Due to many high-profile complaints, Tessa Mayes argues that “free expression is viewed as if it automatically requires to be weighed against privacy” (The Guardian, April 2, 2001. ) Society has changed the definition of privacy with the fascination of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries.
At one end of the spectrum, Channel 4 was inundated with showreels for its Big Brother Series, people who were content to share their intimate moments with the nation, but exposure that people do not feel they are in control of can suddenly be treated as an ‘invasion of privacy’. Celebrities are more and more frequently using ‘invasion of privacy’ as a way of controlling unwanted publicity. Recently Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones sold off a part of their privacy for i?? 1million – by allowing their wedding to be photographed and the results published –
“The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money” A. J. Liebling, The Press. “The problem of journalism in America proceeds from a simple but inescapable bind: journalists are rarely, if ever, in a position to establish the truth about an issue for themselves, and they are therefore almost entirely dependent on self-interested “sources” for the version of reality that they report” Edward Jay Epstein, Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism.
“The true inquiry is the developed truth, whose scattered parts are assembled in the result” Karl Marx, then a reporter for Horace Greeley. “The key question of ethics is the relation between the individual’s own preferences or interests or valuations and his obligations as a member of various groups or communities. ”
Joseph Leighton, The Individual and the Social Order “We misunderstand the limited nature of news, the illimitable complexity of society; we oversestimate our own endurance, public spirit, and all-round competence” Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion Tom Kock, 1991, Journalism in the 21st Century, Adamantine Press Limited.