As the press (not quite united) tore into the Leveson proposals this morning suggesting that it would bring in state control with Ofcom operating as the 'enforcer', it was perhaps inevitable that the good the new plans would do for journalism was soon buried beneath a heap of invective.
And that good is considerable. The plans, drawing heavily on suggestions put forward from Media Reform and the Media Standards Trust, would provide an alternative arbitration service for press complaints, which would implement a properly drafted 'public interest defence' and be run by a new independent press body. It would mean that, where a company or individual seeks to muzzle the press by the threat of libel or privacy action, it would be forced to go through an arbitration process first (or face the risk of exemplary damages in the courts).
While complainants could still take the matter to court after arbitration, the much reviled 'legal underpinning', would ensure that the decisions of the arbitrator could be taken into consideration in the higher courts. Where the arbitration service rules that there is a clear public interest in a disclosure, publications would at last be safe from the threat of draconian court action. Something that Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, welcomed when interviewed on the Today programme this morning.Of course the new system would be a bit of a nuisance to those who for whom investigation really means relentless bullying of people who have done no wrongAngela Phillips
Such a system would also benefit small publications and websites such as Private Eye (who have said they would defy Leveson). By joining up (and there is nothing to prevent them) they agree to establish their own complaints procedures (and why not?) and would be able to make use of low-cost arbitration. As long as they are working 'in the public interest' they would be able to publish material that, in the past, might have landed them in court. So that equals a great deal more investigative journalism in the future – not less.
Of course the new system would be a bit of a nuisance to those who for whom investigation really means relentless bullying of people who have done no wrong, such as Chris Jefferies and the McCanns. Under the Leveson proposals, they would have been able to get swift judgements against the newspapers who were pillorying them and would not have had to sit through months (or years) of vilification before risking court action. It might even help people like Charlotte Church, who has been forced to endure years of torture by tabloid, for the original sin of being born with a glorious voice.
None of this will prevent tabloids from writing stories about people in the public eye. Most of them are peddled by public relations companies who are only too happy to gain a few column inches for their clients. That is a game that the tabloids and the public enjoy and it won't disappear. But we should stop confusing the 'play-fighting' of the Daily Mail right hand 'column of shame' with bullying. A celebrity may be happy to play the game, but that doesn't give journalists a life time's licence to use illicit means of breaching their privacy when they get tired of it. Every game needs rules and the ones the press play by have been too simple: "we always win".
The recommendations require careful scrutiny and some changes will be necessary, but the fundamental issue that is exercising press and Parliament is about the use of the law. The alternative Black/Hunt proposals that much of the industry is pinning its hopes on, would restrict membership to those publications prepared to sign up to a contract. Not just a club, but an exclusive club. It would then use the threat of big fines to keep publications in line but it would also decide when and whether to use that stick and, critically, it would be 'non statutory'.This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something that actually tilts the law in favour of press freedom and real journalismAngela Phillips
But that is the problem. As Lord Leveson explained, if the new arbitration service is to be recognised in the courts it needs to be legally constituted. Only a legally recognised system would provide new safeguards for investigative journalism. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something that actually tilts the law in favour of press freedom and real journalism. We should not allow the narrow interests of the tabloid press to stop us from achieving it.
Angela Phillips is also chair of the Ethics Committee of Media Reform
Angela Phillips, Goldsmiths, University of London