Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

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LESLEY KEATING: A white-knuckle pursuit ending with a lesson in trust

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JOURNALISTS will watch with particular interest the progress of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, ordered by the government in light of the phone-hacking scandal.

There are many who fear that outrage over what happened at The News of the World might lead to tougher regulation that inhibits the traditional role of local newspapers in their communities. This despite Justice Secretary Ken Clarke telling the Society of Editors annual conference last week: ‘My instinct is for self-regulation.’

The role of the Press Complaints Commission has come under scrutiny in wake of the scandal, so its new chairman Lord Hunt of Wirral has a big task on his hands.

For those concerned that the baby might be thrown out with the bathwater in whatever follows the Leveson Inquiry, it was interesting to see Lord Hunt’s view on the regional press.

He told his own local paper, the Liverpool Echo, that he felt he had always been treated fairly by regional journalists during his career as a Conservative politician.

‘The editors’ code of practice says all members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest professional standards and, as far as I am concerned, the regional press has always done that’ he said.

‘I have known many individuals in the regional Press and they always do maintain the highest professional standards.

‘I don’t think in my 35 years in Parliament I have come across any instance where anyone fell below those standards.’

And he made a key point about the way in which news emerges in Britain.

‘When you look back at all the key stories that have developed, they had their origin, usually, in regional papers’ he said.

On phone-hacking he said: ‘Some people have crossed the line but that doesn’t mean the overwhelming majority of journalists, like the ones I have met throughout my life, should be tainted.

‘There will always be, in every walk of life, people who will cross boundaries and the rule of law. That doesn’t mean the system, itself, has to be damaged – provided we learn from what happened.’

Lord Hunt acknowledged that “time is against him” in his battle to save the PCC from abolition and safeguard the system of press self-regulation.

“I don’t want the state and I don’t want politicians interfering with freedom of expression,” he said.

But he added: “While it’s a right, freedom of expression carries with it a heavy responsibility. I have found this in all the newspaper offices I have been in – journalists recognise they do have a heavy responsibility.”

“We have to come up with a structure that will be underpinned by public support – and that’s quite a task.”

In an editorial also published today, the Echo commented: “We are delighted that Lord Hunt has so many kind and positive things to say about regional newspapers like the Liverpool Echo, and that he recognises our vital role in the community.

“Newspapers such as the Echo understand that we can’t afford to betray the trust of our readers. We exist to serve our local communities – the local press and its readers rely on each other in what is a two-way relationship.

“Our readers can trust us to source our stories and content in the correct and proper manner. The Echo doesn’t hack people’s telephones – regional newspapers don’t hack people’s telephones.”