Thursday, 14 July 2011

We can't defend the News of the World - but we must defend press freedom

This has truly been a momentous week for the country as a whole as it has been forced to examine – possibly for the first time – the inner workings of the national press and its curious relationship with people in power.
The extraordinary events of the last 10 days, which culminated in the shock closure of the biggest-selling English language newspaper in the world, has had a profound effect on the whole country. And of course particularly on all of those of us who work in the media.
To hear that a 168-year-old institution like the News of the World was to close down forever was like hearing that as of tomorrow Manchester United or Heinz baked beans wouldn't exist. Some institutions just seemed too big to not always be with us.
But, then again, no institution could survive the onslaught the News of the World had last week.
Can I stress straight away that there is absolutely no defence for what some members of staff of the NOTW did a few years ago. It seems harsh that many of the very good journalists who worked on the paper until last Saturday lost their jobs because of the sins of their fathers but the public mood was so strong that the paper simply could not survive.
Some national journalists, I believe, got into the mode, a few years ago, of believing that the public wanted certain stories so badly that they didn't mind how they were sourced. These people conned themselves that the readers probably felt the end justified just about any means.
However, what we now know is that the public does have a distinct dividing line in their mind – and the News Of The World truly, and unforgivably, crossed it. It signed its own death warrant as a result.
In saying all that, however, I think it's only right that a word of caution is brought into this whole, dramatic debate.
In the midst of all the understandable anger that has been created over the past couple of weeks, we must be careful that we don't allow vigilantism to grow against the whole concept of journalism – and especially investigative journalism.
By the very nature of their jobs journalists sometimes have to use all their wit and wiles to dig away and uncover important stories, and if we allow the current hysteria to stop them doing so, then we could be on a very dangerous path indeed. One that could threaten the precious and prized notion of a free press.
As a powerful example, a couple of years ago a newspaper paid significant money to receive documents it shouldn't by rights have had, which led to a fundamental change in modern British life. I'm referring here not to a red top like the News of the World but to the paper of the establishment – The Daily Telegraph.
It took the enormous risk of paying for material from a 'mole' that revealed the true abuse of expenses by our elected Members of Parliament.
Was it legitimate for the paper to have the files it had? I can't answer that – but what I can say is the Telegraph did an enormous service to the public as a whole by exposing this story.
And, to be fair to the New of the World, (not a phrase you've seen much this week), its final edition spoke of the 250 people who are currently behind bars because of some of the legitimate exposés it did.
Journalism may never be the same again and although for local papers like us nothing has changed – we have always adhered to the strictest legal and moral codes – we must be vigilant that politicians do not use this as the opportunity many have long craved to reduce the freedom of our press to uncover wrongdoing and wrongdoers.
The News of the World did a terrible thing and has paid the ultimate price.
But it is vital that investigative journalism is not another victim of their reckless, criminal activity.
So let us use this opportunity to have a better, cleaner, more honest press – but not one whose freedom is undermined.
A free press is one of the most visible proofs that we live in a free society. We must fight for it.
Sam Holliday

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