press freedom

The end of the ‘investigative journalist’?

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The world’s best-selling newspaper was closed with hundreds of job losses and tens of journalists – in dawn raids – have been arrested. If charged and eventually found guilty, many face the prospect of going to prison. press freedom

At the same time those victims who were wronged by the press in the past have accepted millions of pounds in compensation.

A public inquiry – again costing millions – has been held. Hundreds of Police officers have been assigned to track down any journalist who even more than a decade ago, engaged in any sort of criminal or dubious activity. All of this at tax payer’s expense. And in a bid to ensure nothing like this ever happens again, editors – many of whom admit the industry did need to be cleaned up – have rightly agreed to sign up to a new independent regulator that will bring to the UK the toughest press laws in the Western world and can impose fines of up to £1million.

Whistleblowers

To add to that, new laws brought in already mean that police officers and other whistleblowers can no longer go to the press as they used to if they want to flag up an injustice. This has already prevented many stories from being heard.

You might have thought that the above was more than enough payback for things that happened within the industry years ago and with so many arrests and court cases in the pipeline, proof that criminal laws we already have do work. But no, incredibly for some of those who’ve already accepted those millions in compensation – they want much more.

They want more laws to govern – and ultimately control – what we all read in our newspapers, magazines and on the internet. They might dismiss it as just a ‘dab of legislation’ right now. Because that tends to be how these things start. But the problem is who knows where this could eventually lead. Many a dab of legislation has been gradually developed by government into a great wodge of legislation later. So a national newspaper closed down because it speaks out about the Government? An editor imprisoned because he dares to expose wrong doing in the Police? A political scandal buried because an MP doesn’t want it to be aired? NHS horror stories never seeing the light of day because the authorities don’t want you to read them… and so on.

Affect on the public

You might think none of this will really affect you.
Indeed, as a journalist working in a very niche part of the media industry – selling people’s real-life personal stories to newspapers, magazines and TV – whatever stringent laws are passed are unlikely to affect me either. This is because Featureworld has always worked to much stricter policies than anything Leveson suggested. All discussions with potential interviewees coming to Featureworld to sell a story are off the record. Then interviewees have to approve all copy, which is recorded when it is read back to them. They must sign that they are happy with with copy they have approved, and give permission in writing for their contact details to be sent to any third party. If at the last minute they change their minds about telling their story, it is withdrawn.

But should all stories in every publication only be printed if they are approved in this way? Must our papers be filled with PR puffs for celebrities (Note to Journos: “I will be taking the children to that theatre and going in by the back door at such and such time”) or full of diet tips? Of course not. For a start it is simply not practical in a breaking story to spend days filling in forms (as happens at Featureworld.) And many of those investigative stories are about people who don’t want something exposed – such as the MPs expenses scandal. MPs obviously did not sign an agreement giving newspapers permission to print stories about claiming thousands of pounds from taxpayers to do up their homes or pay for the groceries. However, the strict libel and defamation laws in this country mean a newspaper cannot print something that isn’t true or it risks being sued.

And witness all the recent stories about Kate Middleton – topless and then in a bikini – that have not been published in the UK. A decade ago they would definitely have been in every paper – now (and before press regulation) no editor would dare step out of line.

Where will you go for justice?

Then what if your child dies in terrible circumstances? What if you are the subject of a wrongful arrest? What if you discover an MP is taking backhanders for something?

Who will you go to when the Government controls the paper you hope will expose it? To a lawyer who costs hundreds of pounds an hour with no guarantee of any sort of justice ? (And by the way Featureworld gets more complaints about lawyers, their poor service and fat fees, than any other profession.)

Yet, this is the potential reality – nowhere to go for justice – facing all of us if the press is regulated by law. Most certainly had all this happened years ago, then MPs would still be claiming those expenses paid for by the taxpayer. Many care home abuses would still be going on.

Law includes internet bloggers

And don’t think as a tweeter or blogger (ie: you are a publisher) you will be able to get your grief out via the internet either. Because these laws will cover any blogs ‘directed at an audience in the UK’. If you don’t comply you will be shut down. In fact, we recently told the story of a blogger hauled into the High Court and fined £25,000 for airing her a grievance in this way.

Many people – mistakenly – believe this is all about newspapers wanting to carry on printing kiss and tell stories about celebrities. But don’t worry – after this there will be more celebrity stories than ever to fill those gaps where once investigative journalism had a place.

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Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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