‘Hacking away at the truth’ – Alan Rusbridger Lecture

November 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Alan Rusbridger, Orwell Lecture

(photo credited to Anca Toma)

The British press needs a “regulator with teeth” according to the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger.

Speaking as the guest lecturer at this year’s Orwell Lecture at the Darwin Theatre, University College London, Rusbridger argued that the phone-hacking scandal, broken by the Guardian this July, revealed that the current Press Complaints Commission has no real power.

“The fact remained that it [Press Complaints Commission] had no investigatory powers and no sanctions… it was simply not up to the task of finding out what was going on in the newsrooms it was supposed to be regulating,” said Rusbridger.

The evidence of this lack of power, in Rusbridger’s opinion, started in July 2009 when a Guardian article reported that newspapers owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch had made £1 million pay-outs to silence phone-hacking victims.

The police carried out a report which found there was no evidence that the phone-hacking went beyond the actions of one lone reporter.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) report, in November that year, came back with the same conclusion. This set the pattern for the next 18 months, where as Rusbridger puts it, “almost nothing happened.”

Fear over truth 

But why did nothing happen? Why was no further investigation made, way back in 2009, about the actions of the News of the World? The answer according to Rusbridger, is fear. Fear of one man and one company.

“The simplest explanation is a combination of fear, dominance and immunity. People were frightened of this very big, very powerful company and the man who ran it.”

And to a degree, that fear is justified. Murdoch owned almost 40% of all British newspapers, controlled satellite television and held ‘political muscle.’ A formidible opponent indeed.

But, as part of a ‘self-regulating’ press, the PCC should have done something. And, if they could not, they should have stated so.

“Under more considered leadership, the PCC might, when faced with the Guardian’s allegations in July 2009, have simply said: ‘We’re not equipped to deal with this'” Rusbridger said.

PSMC – the way forward? 

Continuing his lecture, Rusbridger made suggestions for a new and improved PCC – the ‘Press Standards and Mediation Commission’. He described it as a “one-stop-shop disputes resolution service” for the press. A body that would be:

“British, non-legalistic, free from anything that smacks of the state, and something that’s cheap.”

He suggested that this PSMC would provide a forum, in place of the courts, to deal with complaints and issues of libel and defamation in the press. He even went as far as suggesting that this commission could deal with privacy cases as well.

At the end of his lecture, which was met with long-held applause by the audience, Rusbridger reminded us that the phone-hacking scandal has not only shown us what the worst of journalism can do. It has shown us, through Nick Davies and the Guardian, what the best form of journalism can do:

“It is a chance to celebrate great reporting, to think again about what journalism at its best can do and what it should be.”

If you would like to read Alan Rusbridger’s lecture in its entirety, click here

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