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Sorry guys: regulation is the only way to restore faith in journalism.

 Throughout the phone hacking scandal, I’ve noted the parallels with the financial crisis in 2008. The concentration of market power in fewer and fewer hands; the negligence of regulators; the complicity of politicians; and the ultimate crisis of a conglomerate that was “too big to fail” – for Lehman Brothers read Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The banks cut corners, out-sourced risk, relied on dubious practices conducted by third parties in the so called “shadow banking system”. Sound familiar?

Rupert Murdoch’s people had followed the same path – explosive growth, moral abdication, using shadowy underworld figures to hack phones and blag information from official sources. Murdoch’s halting appearance before the Commons select committee this week even reminded me a little of the octogenarian former head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, when he faced Congress in 2009 and admitted that he had been humbled by a crisis he failed to foresee.

No, I’m not apologising for Rupert Murdoch here, nor suggesting that he is to be equated to a central banker. His defence that he knew nothing about how his own newspapers acquired their greatest scoops, echoed by his son James and former Sun and News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks, is patently ridiculous. As ridiculous as bankers like Fred Goodwin of RBS not knowing about sub-prime mortgage bonds. But I make the comparison because a number of commentators have been saying that the hacking scandal is trivial compared with other grown up issues, like the debt crisis sweeping Europe right now. I don’t think it is trivial because it is a product of the same complex of lax regulation, political hypocrisy and naked self-interest.

And what worries me after this week’s epic showdown between politics and the press is that the end result of this crisis might be the same as that of the financial crisis: the guilty will go unpunished and dysfunctional organisations will emerge largely unscathed and free to return to their old ways. Look at how the bankers have restored the bonus culture, worth £14bn in the last year, despite all the evidence that it encouraged risk and short-termism. For all the public inquiries and select committee investigations, and politicians’ promises of an end to casino banking, the City of London remains unreformed. Politicians and regulators baulked at the implications of taking on the power of international finance. Hardly surprising since they had become so professionally and personally close to the ‘masters of the universe’ during the great credit bubble. Gordon Brown had paid homage to the City on the very eve of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse. Tony Blair walked into a million pound sinecure with Morgan Stanley bank the moment he left Downing Street.

And the politicians who cheered on the bankers are the same ones who sought to curry favour with Murdoch’s Sun. David Cameron’s hiring of Andy Coulson as his communications director, even after he had resigned as editor of the News of the World over the phone hacking scandal, was a catastrophic political error. But it was a natural progression from Tony Blair flying out kiss Rupert Murdoch’s ring on that Australian Island in 1995. Gordon Brown’s fury at the behaviour of the Sun in revealing the condition of his son’s health might have carried more conviction had it not been for the fact that his wife Sarah had helped organise the Rebekah Brooks’ 40th birthday party and hosted slumber parties for her at Chequers.

After Westminster departs for holiday today, drunk on self-congratulation, what is to stop the red tops carrying on carrying on? News International were engaged in a race to the bottom with most of the rest of Fleet Street in the 80a and 90s and they won hands down. But we know that many other news organisations were involved in similar illegal practices because the 2006 Report by the UK Information Commissioner told us so. It revealed that just one private ‘investigator’ supplied illegal personal information to 305 named journalists from 21 national newspapers and 11 magazines. The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, called for a two year prison sentence for breaches of the data protection acts.

How do we call time on all this? How do we prize apart the press and politicians from their incestuous embrace? How do we stop organisations like News International getting too big to control? How do we remove fraud and deception from legitimate newsgathering? Clearly, there is going to have to be regulation, and the sooner we in the press realise this the better. It is time to replace the gutless Press Complaints Commission with an independent body with the power to fine newspapers that break its rules. Just like bankers, the press needs to be saved from itself.

The danger, of course, is that regulation might snuff out what remains of our tradition of investigative journalism and free and open comment. But that is a risk worth taking for restoring respect for the Fourth Estate – right now, no one believes anything they read in the papers. We need a proper law of privacy – one that codifies the implicit protections offered by the European Convention on Human Rights. There is nothing to fear here, provided right of privacy is balanced by an constitutional right to freedom of speech. In our ad hoc system we allow money to make up the law as it goes along: well-heeled lawyers use injunctions to protect their wealthy clients, take libel actions to stifle criticism, erect barriers of legal obfuscation to frustrate legitimate public inquiry. This should be blown away by a constitutional guarantee that power and privilege should not be able block the right to know, provided there is a legitimate public interest.

But this is not just about journalist ethics. We also need to prevent media organisations becoming so big that, like the banks, they can escape political control and public accountability. There should be restrictions on the number of national newspapers any one proprietor can own, and just as in any market, cross media ownership should be a matter for the monopolies and mergers commission, not politicians. It’s time for humility all round. As David Cameron put it the day before Andy Coulson was finally put in bracelets: “The truth is, we have all been in this together – the press, politicians and leaders of all parties — and yes, that includes me.”

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


4 thoughts on “Sorry guys: regulation is the only way to restore faith in journalism.

  1. I think you're just about the only journalist I've seen that doesn't speak about press regulation as if it will lead to the death of the press. Journalists should be obeying the law, just like the rest of us. If they can't get their stories by legal means, then maybe they just need to start thinking outside the box a bit.Of course, far too much "journalism" these days requires no thinking at all, since it's just a case of rewording press releases and articles from the Press Association, Reuters etc.

    Posted by Doug Daniel | July 24, 2011, 1:02 pm
  2. Regulation must come. The PCC must be dismantled: it is controlled by newspapers for the benefit of newspapers. It is a sham. (Having once tried to submit a complaint I know just how much of a sham it is.)"How do we remove fraud and deception from legitimate newsgathering?"That's a huge question Iain but it doesn't just affect the red-tops when so many of the (alleged) "qualities" have their flaws too. What I would like to see is the depoliticising of the press across the board. If we had a neutral press that was committed to truly holding politicians to account we would not have seen so many scandalous events come to pass. I would include Iraq in the list. The trouble is what we have in this country is a group, divided politically, who are willing to spin the news along the lines of political allegiance thus you will see one news item spun in different ways by various newspapers. We deserve better. With a responsible press politicians would indeed be afraid of newspapers but for reasons we would all applaud. Broadcasters are not immune either. On the current Libya conflict I recall the first day of our involvement when Libya called for UN observers to be sent to Libya at once. The BBC ran this item and then interviewed a UK government spokesman who basically laughed and said, "Dream on Libya." He was not challenged on such an approach. On Libya, people like Hague and Cameron have been able to talk about "regime change" in a relaxed manner when that very thing is illegal. It is also not part of the UN resolution that took us to Libya. Yet they have been let away with it. Newspapers and broadcasters still refer to "the rebels" without even yet knowing who these people are or what they stand for. There is a bigger scandal which, in my view, could never have happened unless the press helped to cover up the lies and deceit of politicians but that deserves a post of its own.

    Posted by Jo G | July 25, 2011, 9:29 am
  3. In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission announced it had found six grounds to suggeset that the conviction of Abdel Basset Al Megrahi, of the Lockerbie bombing, may have been unsafe. Six grounds. Incidentally the SCCRC was hampered in its work by a UK government which would not release certain evidence. Almost three hundred people died at Lockerbie. It was the biggest terrorist attack over UK skies since World War 2. And here were all these questions casting doubt on the man convicted. What did our press do in Scotland, and pretty much throughout the UK? Pretty much nothing. They turned up and took photos of politicians at the 20th anniversary of the atrocity, they ran pages and pages of pictures from the original event yet they failed utterly to register the implications of the SCCRC report. Why would the entire media opt to ignore the SCCRC findings? I still can't understand that. The Scottish Judiciary delayed the appeal, repeatedly, and Blair started his dirty little deals in the desert with Megrahi right at the centre. They wanted him out of the country one way or another without that appeal being heard. They wanted the appeal buried. Were our press bothered that the US paid millions of dollars to the man who testified Megrahi bought those clothes in his shop? Were they bothered that our own Lord Advocate at the time, Colin Boyd, actually lied to judges at the trial while trying to conceal the contents of cables exchanges between the US authorities and the prosecution which established another witness was also in the pay of the American Security Services? Were they bothered that information on a break-in at Heathrow on the morning of the day Pan Am 103 went down was withheld from the trial?Are they bothered that the Scottish Government stopped the SCCRC report being published?Sadly no. Some journalists tried very hard. The late Paul Foot was one. I know Iain has written about these things too as has Ian Bell. But mainly the UK media stayed quiet. Which proved to me, long before Murdoch was exposed, how corrupt that body is: even the qualities. For in helping to keep the truth about Lockerbie hidden I believe they are actually worse than the politicians behind the deceit. They ran pages and pages again when "the Lockerbie bomber" was released and still they ignored the report by the independent SCCRC that said the original conviction may have been unsafe. They didn't scream at politicians for the truth. For reasons best known to themselves the UK , yes even the Scottish, media still don't want to know the truth about Lockerbie. I think, out of respect for the dead, if nothing else,they had an absolute duty to demand it. As I said in the previous post, if we had a remotely responsible, honest media in this country so many things would just not have been allowed to happen.

    Posted by Jo G | July 25, 2011, 9:59 am
  4. ""We also need to prevent media organisations becoming so big that, like the banks, they can escape political control and public accountability.""You mean like the BBC?

    Posted by CWH | July 28, 2011, 10:25 pm

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