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code of practice, lord McCluskey, phone hacking, Press Council of Ireland, press regulation

Watch out. Press censorship is here.

‘Africa is giving nothing to anyone – apart from AIDS’. A rather nasty remark, and untrue. Africa gives us many things, including most of the world’s gold and diamonds, and you can’t blame a country for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I would say that this remark, from the Irish journalist and commentator, Kevin Myers, in the Irish Independent in 2008 should actually be censored. But be in no doubt – it cannot be said again in Ireland. And nor can anything like it.
This was one of the earliest cases taken to the Irish Press Council, the system of press regulation Alex Salmond would like to see in Scotland. It was referred to the Irish press watchdog by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, and a number of NGOs, on the grounds that it breached four of the principles of the Council’s Code of Practice for journalists. 1)Accuracy 2)Fairness 3)Respect for rights and 8)Incitement to Hatred. The Council accepted that it was “gratuitously offensive”, and “was likely to cause grave offence to people throughout sub-Saharan Africa” It ruled that the article “did breach Principle 8 of the Code”. Though confusingly it did not conclude that it was “likely to stir up hatred”.
But the matter didn’t end there. After the ruling, in 2009, the Irish Times ran a headline “Press Council upholds complaint against Myers article”. Mr Myers then took the Irish Times to the Press Council on the grounds that this breached Principle 1)Accuracy, 3)Fairness and 4)Respect for Rights. The Times argued that its headline was accurate and fair since it was a direct quote from the Press Council itself. But the Press Council didn’t agree and said that even though this is what it had said, the Irish Times headline was misleading and it “breached Principle 1 of the Code”. However, just to make things even more confusing, it only partially upheld the complaint made by Mr Myers against the Irish Times.
I’m afraid this is what happens when you put a group of lawyers,ex- judges and professors in charge of regulating the press. The PC tried to apply these very broad an subjective criteria, like offensive and fair, to a piece of journalism that was neither. But they also realised that freedom of speech does require that sometimes offensive and unfair things are said. So, they tried to have it both ways – they upheld the complaint, and didn’t uphold it at the same time.
But this has had one very clear outcome: censorship.

 The PC may only have partially upheld the complaint against Mr Myers, but that means that the sentence used cannot be printed in any Irish publication ever again. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure what happens if someone takes a copy of the Sunday Herald to Dublin this week – will they be handling illegal goods? I jest, but this is serious. The Irish Press Council model is hailed as the best around by many politicians seeking to address the phone hacking scandal. It is independent, it has statutory underpinning, it is not under the control of government – at least not directly. But slowly and surely it is closing down spirited commentary and restricting freedom of speech.
The proposals from the Scottish expert panel under Lord McCluskey on implementing the Leveson Commission here are more draconian in that there is a direct political involvement through the appointment, by government ministers, of a “recognition commissioner” – a figure who would oversee any regulation body set up by the press. The Leveson report proposed that the ultimate oversight would come from media regulators Ofcom. McCluskey has also ditched Leveson’s proposal that it should only be the printed press that is regulated, and has included “all publishers of news-related material” in whatever published form, including the internet, blogs, tweets – the lot. He has also rejected Leveson’s proposal that publications should be able to opt in and opt out of the press regulatory regime. Under McCluskey’s law, statutory regulation would be compulsory and it would be universal – like the law of contempt or the harassment laws
There is logic to McCluskey’s proposals. One of the anomalies of Leveson was that he only focussed on the press, meaning that if you read this article on line it would be not be regulated, but if you read it in print it is. But the impact is regulation, which I am afraid will lead to serious restrictions being placed on freedom of speech.  As soon as you get a committee of the great and the good applying vague standards and codes of practice you are likely to get a spiral of precedents that will strangle free expression. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond’s “recognition commissioner” will be casting a beady eye over everything to ensure “compliance”.
Few liberals cared much about Kevin Myers, since he was a right wing xenophobe, but wait until someone who says that Israel is killing innocent people in Gaza is taken to the Press Council. George Galloway called Tony Blair is a murderer – but he won’t be able to say that in print or online. Some of the descriptions of Brian Souter, during the “Keep the Clause” campaign against the promotion of homosexuality in schools would be actionable, as would be many of the remarks made by his supporters. Feminists who say silly things like “all men are rapists” could be in the dock , as will loud-mouths like Ray Winstone who said he was “raped by taxes”. Words and images will be weighed and calibrated on subjective scales of right and wrong and offensiveness.
Countless Private Eye covers would be actionable because humour is no defence. In June 2008 it ran a front page on the Zimbabwe elections with Robert Mugabe saying “The opposition were soundly beaten”, with another speech bubble adding: “To death”. You might think it is not possible to be gratuitously offensive about Robert Mugabe, but the government of Zimbabwe might think differently. Anyway, how could Private Eye prove that opponents had been killed? The law has a tin ear when it comes to irony. Private Eye may not even be on sale in Scotland if McCluskey’s proposals are implemented because its editor, Ian Hislop, has already said he will not accept regulation.
Indeed, London-based newspapers might find themselves before the Scottish Press Council for saying things that are considered offensive in Scotland but not in England. No doubt someone would have made a complaint about the Economist magazine’s infamous “Skintland” cover story two years ago, which many Scots found offensive. I found it offensive too, but I would always defend the Economist’s right to say it.
But how do we stop journalists from phone hacking, blagging medical records, bribing police, stalking minors, harassing film actresses? Surely we need regulation. Yes – but that should be done by applying the existing law. Phone hacking is illegal, and there are strict limits on handling of official information under the date protection acts.  Bribery is illegal, so is stalking.  And we already have the most restrictive defamation laws in the world as tweeters discovered when they made untrue allegations that Lord McAlpine was a sex criminal.  All these offences, perpetrated by the gutter press, are already illegal. This is the point. The new Press Council, if it is on Irish lines will end up trying to limit the power of the press to give offence to people. And that’s where censorship begins. 

About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.


8 thoughts on “Watch out. Press censorship is here.

  1. I think what is needed here is some common sense and not a kneejerk reaction. I can't imagine why anyone would want to restrict the freedom of the press unless it is to ensure things stay hidden. Like you say many of the things that people have found offensive about media actions re already covered by existing laws, they just need to be applied and editors/journalists left in no doubt what is acceptable practice.Now what i take issue with the media is that many are actually just presstitutes and stepford journalists peddling government propaganda. How many papers do you see mentioning the fact that the government are privatising the NHS by stealth? Sure there are some, but on the whole what we are seeing are scare stories about the NHS killing people (and atleast one story a day about benefit kings/queens leeching off us poor taxpayers) all done so that they can manipulate public perception into actually welcoming the government taking these things away from us.You see it's not just the independence debate i take issue with media bias. It is happening over a number of other issues and it would be nice if the media wouldnt print such blatant lies like Craig Whyte billionaire 😉 so in closing i would say that I dont agree with censorship of the press i would just like an honest one.

    Posted by Megz | March 18, 2013, 10:59 am
  2. I sit on the fence on this but am being increasingly losing my balance the more one looks into it.Self-regulation has failed in every elite area of UK public life: press, bankers, police, political classes.Our 'Democracy' is obviously nothing more than Dictatorship in disguise aided and abetted by the media.

    Posted by cynicalHighlander | March 18, 2013, 8:47 pm
  3. A tory MP has sought a review of Chris Hulnes conviction for perjury, citing that it was too lenient. I agree.Simon Jenkins in the guardian in his 'wisdom' asks 'What is all the fuss ?' thus trivialising the offence. But as one woman suggested on Question time, BBC2 we are missing the point -This man lied, period. That is the substance of the offence he committed. There is no defence against liar. Such is the nature of the offence Hulne should have been sent down for years not a few months with remission throwen in.

    Posted by stan-ley | March 20, 2013, 10:26 am
  4. What has my previous blogg got to do with press censorship? This, We should give the papers and the journalists the freedom to comment as they see fit. We, the public, quite rightly, should sympathise with those who feel aggrieved by their behaviour, but they can receive redress through recourse to the law as it stands. To gag the freedom of the press can, however be a double edged sword. We cannot discourage genuine investigative journalism. But Journalists/editors must be made aware that we citizens have a right to our privacy and just as breaking and entering our property is an infringement of our rights so likewise is hacking into our telephone accounts.On the latter the seriousness of the offence must be reflected by a clear policy, as in perjury,on what sentenced can be expected by the offending party.I am clear that phone hacking should be a 'straight to jail' offence as is the case for those who deliberately lie.

    Posted by stan-ley | March 20, 2013, 11:32 am
  5. You may be 'watching out' Iain, but the rest of us are hoping that your lot of paid lackeys are once and for all put to rights.The last bastion of free speech are you, tell that to Milly Dowler's family who thought their daughter was still alive when the messages on her mobile phone answer machine were deleted by a journalist and they were able to get through.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 21, 2013, 4:24 pm
  6. AnonymousYou don't need a Royal Commission for that as it's already a criminal offence and indeed many have already been arrested and will almost certainly go to jail.

    Posted by Bitethehand | March 22, 2013, 6:38 am
  7. What is more, it won't need politicians or a Royal Commission directly interfering in newspapers or censoring material if the recent action of the Guardian is anything to go by. Here’s that great newspaper censoring the historical record and airbrushing the online version of its pioneering reader involvement initiative “Comment is Free.”http://wp.me/p2m6oo-103

    Posted by Bitethehand | March 22, 2013, 6:42 am
  8. When an untruth is printed then really there should be no argument when the publishers are brought to book on the matter. The problem with journalists now is that they tend to focus more on sensationalism than on finding out the truth on subject matter. Maybe that's part of the problem which is causing a decrease in tabloid circulation. Why buy a fictitious rag when you could nip into your local store and buy a book on vampires and werewolves. Much more exciting with about the same amount of fiction. Maybe the tabloids could run a series of vampire interviews. It would certainly get the girls interested. This was done decades ago with sherlock and co.

    Posted by simon tate | March 30, 2013, 4:16 pm

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