If you’ve been following Leveson, you’ll know that national newspaper Editors have agreed to accept all the proposals except one: statutory enforcement. In other words, they’ve agreed to abide by a new ‘code’ but they will not accept a law to enforce that code.
As a journalist who has always abided by the PCC code of conduct without any difficulty and knows hundreds of journalists who have done the same, I don’t think a law is necessary. Mistakes – some catastrophic and devastating – have been made by a very small minority of journalists and editors (and media owners), but it would be mad to punish all hard-working, decent journalists because of the mistakes of a few.
However I do think a new code of conduct enforced by non-journalists, and people without commercial or political interest in the media, would have been a better step in the right direction to restore public faith in newspapers (and magazines). Instead it looks as though there are going to be editors sitting on the new body. And I can understand the frustration of Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off campaign, because although the fines will be bigger, the new code will be no different to the other one in actuality, because newspaper editors and their bosses will continue to calculate the financial risk of running a story, and those reporters and editors that flaunted the principles of the PCC code may continue to do the same with the new code, because they don’t have the same ethical standards as the rest of us. We’ll see.
I’ve spent a good portion of my career working on national newspapers and women’s weeklies, and spent eight years working for the Murdoch empire. I can still remember being told how to hack a mobile phone, and yes, I was at Wapping – although at the time as I discovered even my civilian friends knew about the magic 1234 combination too.
Yes I’ve been under pressure to get exclusives at 80% of the publications I’ve worked for, but I would never have hacked someone’s phone, simply because that’s not the kind of journalist I am or ever wanted to be. You have to be able to sleep at night and look your children in the face in the morning. Every interview I’ve ever run, whether it was one I’d done myself or by one of my staff, has been on tape. I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent going over and over interviews with lawyers to be certain that every word we were printing was on the record, and that we weren’t in breach of the PCC code.
But the other side of the coin is that on women’s weeklies and celebrity mags we became used to calls from case studies who had changed their minds about their story after they’d seen it in print (even though we always, without fail, read the story back to them to make sure there were no factual inaccuracies, made sure there was evidence to back it up, and had the story ‘legalled’ by our lawyers.) I also became used to calls from celebrity agents begging us not to run certain quotes their clients had given us (in 99% of cases, this was because they’d realised that they’d said TOO much and jeopardised a potential deal with another magazine. Early in my career I was advised by a hardened hack to ‘hit and run’ – but I think relationships are more valuable, which is why I’ve been on friendly terms with all the celebs I’ve interviewed and set up interviews with.) I’ve also seen countless injunctions, and believe me, there are A LOT of stories which haven’t run.
How does Leveson affect us as bloggers?
Since he chose only to devote a page of his report to social media it’s pretty clear he doesn’t see it as a very big threat at the moment. But while it’s unlikely bloggers are going to start hacking phones (or twitter accounts), it’s important to make sure that what we’re tweeting or blogging is based on fact, because we are not rich media owners. There have been cases of libel against bloggers and tweeters brought to court and it’s important to remember that just because you read something on the internet, even if you read it more than once, it doesn’t mean it’s true. (Only recently I read a post by a blogger linking to several controversial sites making wild and unproven claims against individuals, as though they were gospel. I hope the blogger in question has had the good sense to take the links out.)
It’s very straightforward. Before you link to a potentially libellous claim in a post, or make that claim on your own blog or tweet it, ask yourself this question: ‘am I sure this is true?’ If you haven’t done your research, then you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law.