Anthony Longden Column: Rebooting public perception of journalism is key in post-Leveson world

Anthony Longden

A big chunk of journalism requires a degree of mutual trust between the writer and those providing the information.

The legions of post-Leveson cynics would have us believe the word ‘trust’ in the context of journalism is risible.

Skewed arguments, wilful misinformation and sweeping generalisation about our industry give truth to the lie that every journalist in the UK is corrupt and out of control.

The cacophony surrounding the Leveson inquiry drowned out a rational assessment of the job we all do, and yet the mud that was so indiscriminately flung has stuck, because that is what mud does.

We are now all on a long road back to restoring our reputation and hopefully winning back the trust of the public.

The existence of a media that is free and trusted has never been more important. Hard-won fundamental freedoms taken for granted for so long, are being seriously threatened.

The government aims to water down the Freedom of Information Act. Police-media relations have never been worse. There are still plenty of people who would like to see draconian press and media regulation, possibly on a statutory basis. And the snooper’s charter is about to make an unwelcome return to the government’s legislative agenda.

Why do people talk to journalists? In many cases because they wish to expose wrongdoing or injustice, and – until recently – they could assume their identity as a source would be protected.

But for how much longer?

On September 17, MI5 director Andrew Parker was interviewed by Mishal Husain on Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said the UK is facing an unprecedented level of threat, primarily because of the turmoil in Syria and Iraq, adding that six attempts to carry out terrorist attacks here had been thwarted in the last 12 months. A further nine attack plots had been ‘disrupted’ overseas in that time.

Our Spook in Chief articulated the well-rehearsed line of the intelligence agencies and police, that they urgently need greater powers to monitor data traffic.

MI5’s website is impressive. Methods of oversight are clearly set out, and it makes its case well.

The problem, however, lies with the gulf that has opened up between police and the media in the past few years.

The flow of meaningful information has been reduced to a trickle, meticulously filtered through force press offices.

Thanks to high-profile campaigns, most notably by Press Gazette, we have seen wholesale misapplication of the law by police forces across the country, the most obvious examples relating to misuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) against journalism or freedom of expression.

Prosecutions collapse. Rash, bullish statements by senior officers have to be retracted. Barely a week seems to pass without a chief constable having to make an apology of one kind or another.

And I was very perturbed to learn of Westminster police’s creative way of going well beyond its remit, when it forced a London art gallery to remove a series of satirical tableaux depicting children’s toys being threatened by ISIS.

Plod viewed this installation at an exhibition about freedom of expression as “potentially inflammatory content”. Knowing, however, that this wouldn’t wash, senior officers found a handily prosaic means to an end: the exhibition’s organisers were told that if they went ahead with their plans to display the pieces, they would have to pay £36,000 for security during the six-day show.

If you extend sweeping powers to MI5 in the name of fighting terrorism, most, if not all, of those powers will also be available to the police. Given their performance over the last few years, that would be ill advised to say the least.

The government is preparing to wheel out its latest anti-terrorism bill, which will contain many of the proposed measures last seen in the abortive ‘snooper’s charter’ of 2012.

No-one can reasonably dispute the imperative of maintaining national security. But far-reaching measures that undermine rights and freedoms in the name of anti-terrorism must be properly applied.

The police claimed full oversight was being applied to RIPA, but we now know that simply wasn’t the case – they, and even some local authorities – were using it at the drop of a hat.

For most of the time, senior officers were authorising their own use of the Act, and authorisation by a senior politician – the Home Secretary – is certainly no better.

The message is simple: any extension of powers that directly affect the rights and freedoms of the individual – and journalists plying their trade – must have transparent, fully independent and proper oversight and authorisation, preferably by a judge, and there should also be a robust appeals and notification system.

And finally…

“But what is Freedom? Rightly understood,
A universal licence to be good.”
Hartley Coleridge
English poet (1796-1849)

* Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism. He spent 20 years as editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.
He is a member of the Society of Editors’ parliamentary and legal committee, lobbying on behalf of the media industry on a wide range of issues.
He completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission, and sat on its reform committee.
Now a consultant and journalist, he advises the SoE and Alder Media, a London-based crisis PR firm. He judges the annual UK national and regional Newspaper Awards.