Barry Turner: Media criminality – a failure of law, not regulation

This guest post by Barry Turner, senior lecturer in media law at the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism at Nottingham Trent University, is a response to this post by Daniel Bennett: ‘After Leveson – a State of the News Media report for the UK’.

I read with interest Daniel Bennett’s comments on self-reporting in the media and am not surprised that the press studiously avoid stories about their own misdeeds. If they reported even 10 per cent of them the newspapers would be unable to find space for anything else.

Pardon the cynicism in the opening paragraph but editors, like politicians and academics have a blind eye when it comes to recognising fault in themselves. It is not this character flaw however that has precipitated the current hacking scandal. While the lack of self-criticism certainly represents at least a low level of dishonesty, in itself it does not explain the criminality that has allegedly taken hold of certain areas of the media.

If the criminal justice system had been more robust in the past and not given the media an easy ride where it was clearly violating the law then perhaps the perpetrators of phone hacking would not have believed themselves untouchable.

A direct parallel can be drawn with criminality in juveniles and on sink estates. The media howl with indignation about the police and courts being lenient on the thugs and blame this leniency for the proliferation of crime. Hardly surprising then that the lack of action against rogue journalists and editors leaves them thinking they are beyond the reach of the law.

As is constantly being stated by most of the more level headed commentators and witnesses at Leveson it is the failure of the criminal justice system to deal with violations of the criminal law by the media or, on the odd occasion where they have acted, the ridiculously small penalties imposed that have caused this current situation.

The media do not need any more regulation; they need to be treated as we would expect everyone else to be where they act criminally. No amount of regulation can stop criminal behaviour. It is like suggesting that we can reduce burglaries by regulating burglars under the EU Working Time Directive.

Almost certainly the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry will be more press regulation, press regulation that will only chill the best of our media and have no effect on the worst.

Our legal tradition allows our courts to be under the scrutiny of the public and it is the reason we have a press box in every court. The media facilitate that scrutiny but if they themselves hold the system in contempt then they are failing in their job. The criminal justice system is failing in its job if it does not hold criminals to account and the past reluctance to use the law against a powerful press has led to a mind-set in some in the media that they are above the law.

What we need is less regulation and more prosecution – that way only the crooks get penalised. To regulate the whole of the media as a response to the outright criminality of a minority within it is absurd.

Barry Turner is a senior lecturer in media law at the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism at Nottingham Trent University

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This entry was posted in comment, leveson inquiry, media ethics, media law, phone hacking, police, public interest and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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