Juliet Dobson: Freedom of the press v privacy rights. Is it time for parliament to draw the line?

Juliet DobsonThe seventh UCL/Bindmans Debate on 8 February tackled the question of press privacy. Should parliament regulate the press? One side of the argument is that freedom of expression is too important to be regulated. But on the other hand, is the press now too immoral to regulate itself?

Tessa Jowell, Labour MP and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, began the panel discussion. She said that as an MP handling the media was part of her everyday work and that the status quo is unsustainable even if you believe in a free press. She thinks that the press should be free but with clearer boundaries about what is acceptable. “Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it is acceptable,” she said. 

She spoke of the need to enforce an editor’s code so that editors become clearly accountable for the behaviour of their journalists. Without this she fears that public life will be degraded because people will not come forward for public roles for fear of dreading that 5pm call on a Saturday.

She also made an interesting point about “media literacy.” There is an onus on readers to be competent, engaged, and discerning so that we identify the timing and motive of a story. We need to look beyond the regulator and the regulated to find a solution to privacy rights, she said.

This view was echoed by Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Agency. We live in an age when anyone can publish anything on the internet, so all practical constraints against publishing something have been removed. We need to replace these constraints with something else, and he suggested that cultural constraints would be one solution.

Another way that the public can alter editorial policy is if we stop buying newspapers, although this struck me as rather unlikely. Max Mosley, former Formula One boss, who won a legal case against the News of the World when they printed revelations about his sex life, was another panel member. He pointed out that even if people know something is wrong, they will still read it. He compared it to how people used to flock to watch public hangings, even though they knew that what they were watching was terrible.

The problem with trying to regulate the press or create any barriers against publication is that the press make a living from transgressing this line, said Martin Moore. And the fact is that sometimes this is legitimate. Most people agree that there is a place for good investigative journalism. Moore thought that if there was a clearer view of what is in the public interest then that would help. Mosley agreed, saying that public interest needs to be defined, with some presumptions about what is and isn’t in the public interest. This would also protect journalists as they are currently in a vulnerable position. A clearly defined line would give good journalists the confidence to intrude and bad journalists a sense of when they are going too far.

Gill Phillips, director of editorial legal services at the Guardian, gave an interesting history of press regulation. There have been attempts to regulate the priting press ever since it was invented and complaints about the press are not new. The problem is that regulation through taxes, for example, leads to bribery and corruption and also limits who can access the press. How do you deal with fringe elements—for example, bloggers—she asked. These kind of marginal/underground groups have always existed and always will.

This issue of how the internet and bloggers have changed things was highlighted by Max Mosley who said that once someone’s private life has been exposed then it is out there forever and there is no remedy for that. You can’t retract the information, or stop people knowing, even if the journalists or media outlets are punished. Therefore regulation that stops publication is needed. He also made an interesting point that all this regulation needs to be free of charge because at the moment only people with a lot of money can afford to take the papers to court over something they have published.

Tessa Jowell said that the hardest decision that she had to make in her time as health secretary was whether to continue with the MMR vaccine in light of the campaign in some newspapers to stop the vaccine. She felt that if at the time the internet was more powerful then it would have been easier to see a balance, as the public would have had access to more information about MMR.

In the end no conclusions were drawn about if or how the press should be regulated. But I felt that the crux of the problem was best summed up by Gill Phillips, who said that the default position used to be that we eventually forget everything, hence the saying, yesterday’s papers are today’s fish and chip paper. But now with the internet the default position is that we remember everything. And we can easily dig up stories from the past. So having some constraints over what is published, is now more important than ever.

Juliet Dobson is the assistant web editor and blogs editor, BMJ