Anthony Longden Column: What next after the Royal Charter on press standards?

Anthony Longden

Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism ethics

POLL after poll shows the public has little or no trust in the police, politicians, bankers, lawyers and journalists.

And the Savile catastrophe, jaw-dropping executive pay-offs, poor management, and governance shortcomings have taken a heavy toll on the BBC’s reputation too. Nowadays the esteem of the public is hard-earned, and rightly so.

The Leveson inquiry seriously undermined confidence in the press, leaving it wide open to wholesale condemnation by those with vested interests and old scores to settle.

It is a bitter irony that at the very time we need journalism the most, it faces its gravest threats.

November is the month of one of high points of the media year – the Society of Editors’ annual conference.

The event always makes headlines, and this year it will be a barometer by which to measure the full extent of the damage done in the past two years.

Cast your eye down the session list for the 2013 conference. Its range reveals the complexity of the challenges to fundamental freedoms and privileges we have tended, in our liberal democracy, to take for granted, but for which now it seems we must fight.

Take police relations – even before the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, relations between journalists and police in many parts of the country had been deteriorating. The impression created at the inquiry of a press in cosily corrupt collusion with the police was entirely at odds with the frustrating operational reality experienced by journalists, especially those in the regions.

Much of the misapprehension regarding the police-press relationship was courtesy of Dame Elizabeth Filkin’s 2012 report into phone hacking at News International. Its guidelines on how police should interact with the media were so wide of the mark they prompted the Daily Telegraph’s crime correspondent, Mark Hughes, to describe them as patronising, bordering on offensive.

Dame Elizabeth, a civil servant, made it quite clear that any relations between police officers and journalists were A Bad Thing.

Hughes wrote: “After characterising police officers as simpletons too stupid to protect the integrity of their investigations, the report then turns its attack on journalists. ‘Reporters can be inexperienced, naïve, rushed or slapdash,’ it says…’

“The truth of the matter is that relationships between police officers and journalists can be extremely beneficial. Just ask the cop who, frustrated with the lack of witnesses coming forward following a murder outside a busy nightclub, used his local paper to plead to those who saw the killing to speak to the police. They did, and the killers are currently in prison.”

Since Leveson things have become even worse, and the flow of information from some police forces has all but dried up. There are examples of best practice, and sharing them with a wider audience is a big part of the SoE’s work.

Unsurprisingly, a session on the police and the media is a key part of the conference programme.

Other areas to be covered this year include the future of press regulation – no surprise there, but there are other concerns and threats to press freedom, too– pre-charge anonymity, secret justice, fundamental changes to coroners’s courts, family courts and access to them, contempt, teachers’ anonymity and freedom of information.

In every one of these areas of activity there are threats and obstacles to the journalist’s – therefore the public’s – access to information.

The early 21st century can be characterised by a creeping secrecy that threatens to choke off sources of fundamental information. The farce of the confirmation of the politicians’ doomed royal charter on October 30 is the thinnest end of a huge wedge.

As fast as social-networking citizens give up their privacy, institutions of state shore theirs up. They do it in the name of public protection and it is the role of journalists to query and test this.

The old adage ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ is apt here. It lies at the heart of the debate about pre-charge anonymity – one of the essential protections against people being taken off the streets without trace or explanation.

Public access to the courts – justice being seen to be done – is one of our oldest legal principles, but even this is no longer guaranteed. We must use these rights and privileges if we are not to lose them. The recent pilot project for allowing cameras in court is a significant step in the right direction.

The fact journalists rarely attend minor, family and civil courts is one of the more disturbing symptoms of the steadily mounting financial pressures on news organisations – tiny staff numbers mean there is often no one who can be spared out of the newsroom for an indefinite period on the off chance of getting a story. That in turn, means the courts themselves are no longer used to seeing journalists on the press bench, and the clerks may even think we are not entitled to attend.

These issues, and many more besides, mean there is still much work to be done.

Society of Editors president, Jonathan Grun, editor of the Press Association said: “This year’s conference follows a year in which countering threats to the media have been at the forefront of the society’s work.

“We will use this conference to make the case that an independent robust press is truly a force for good and it will be a forum to debate they key issues with our critics.”

• For more details, and to follow developments of the conference,

You can also follow it on Twitter @socofeduk


And finally…

“Newspapers, for all their faults, are the true guardians of the public interest.”

Sir David English
Editor, The Daily Mail, 1971-1992

* Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism ethics and has been a journalist for 30 years, 20 of them spent as an editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest, Trinity Mirror, Southnews, Argus and Westminster Press. 

He has been a member of the Society of Editors’ Parliamentary and Legal Committee since 1999, lobbying on behalf of the media industry across a wide range of issues. Most recently he helped draft several of the Society’s modules of evidence for the Leveson inquiry.

He completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission in September 2012, and sat on its reform sub-committee. Now a consultant and journalist, he advises the SoE, the PCC during its transition phase, and Alder Media, a London-based crisis PR firm. He is also a judge for the annual UK Regional Newspaper Awards.