[Originally written for the CIPR Friday Roundup.]
"Too many stories in too many newspapers were the subject of complaints from too many people, with too little in the way of titles taking responsibility." Newspapers have often demonstrated "a significant and reckless disregard for accuracy" and "misrepresentation and embellishment takes place to a degree far greater than could ever be thought of as legitimate or fair comment."
I've just read the Leveson Inquiry, published yesterday and running to nearly two thousand pages. These quotes come from the forty page executive summary. For those of you beyond the UK's shores, the Inquiry is about the freedom of the press in both the positive and negative manifestations of that expression, with a focus on how we can attenuate the negative.
The UK enjoys a pluralistic media of which other countries are rightly envious, and a free press is central to our national identity. The report quotes Sir Winston Churchill: "A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny ... Under dictatorship the press is bound to languish ... But where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen."
To my mind, press freedom is at its most productive in society when those who have the freedom also respect the responsibility that comes with it. There's no reason why the press cannot be free and accountable, so long as that accountability doesn't impinge on the very definition of the Fourth Estate. And that's the balance the Inquiry endeavours to strike.
Now when I say I've read the report, I mean I've read the page and a bit titled "The relevance of the internet". (Did you think I'd been up all night?!)
The report describes the internet as an "ethical vacuum", pointing out that whilst many do conduct themselves online with probity, it's far from a prerequisite, and many do not. Many can publish with impunity. The report asserts that "the press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct" and refers to the "notional imprimatur or kitemark which comes from being the publisher of a respected broadsheet or, in its different style, an equally respected mass circulation tabloid."
The report criticises the rationale of newspapers who chose to publish (intrusive) photographs simply on the basis that they were already available online (there's a chapter on the Prince Harry Las Vegas photographs). "There is a qualitative difference between photographs being available online and being displayed, or blazoned, on the front page of ... the Sun".
The section continues: "To turn this into a debate about free speech both misses the point and is in danger of creating the sort of moral relativism which has already been remarked on. This is, or at least should be, a debate about freedom with responsibility, and about an ethical press not doing something which it is technically quite able to do but decides not to do."
Whether a 'kitemark' conveys authority and reputation or whether careful tending of one's reputation imbues a kitemark, the same reputation mechanisms play out online as off. At least I think they do. Perhaps new media enables truth to come out earlier than otherwise, and perhaps I'm just an optimist. It will be interesting to see now how much the press can persuade the public to join the prime minister in resisting "legislative underpinning" of press standards, or whether the public says enough is enough contrary to the headlines inking their fingers and filling their screens.
This could be momentous. If you want to find out more about what this means for UK journalism and public relations, join me for a special edition of CIPR TV on Monday at 5pm where the guests taking your questions are Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, and Jane Wilson, CIPR CEO.