Michelle Stanistreet

NUJ mixed reaction to Leveson report

Within the 2,000 pages of Lord Justice Leveson’s report is a major victory for the National Union of Journalists – his recommendation that employers should include a conscience clause in journalists’ contracts.

The union has long campaigned for this protection of journalists. Despite the Home Affairs Select Committee backing the NUJ's campaign in X2003, both the Press Complaints Commission and the Society of Editors refused to bring it in.

The clause means that when an NUJ member is put in a position where they are being asked to do something that goes against their code of conduct, they can speak out and refuse an assignment knowing that they have a contractual protection against being dismissed.

We had to fight to get our place as core participants to the Inquiry, but when we eventually did we ensured the voice of working journalists was strongly heard alongside those representing the owners and editors. We were able to lift the lid on the reality of newsroom culture and the pressure and bullying far too many journalists face.

Lord Leveson got the message. In his report he said: “I was struck by the evidence of journalists who felt that they might be put under pressure to do things that were unethical or against the code. I therefore suggest that the new independent self-regulatory body should establish a whistle-blowing hotline and encourage its members to ensure that journalists’ contracts include a conscience clause protecting them if they refuse.”  

A contractually-binding protection will be a great advance for all journalists and for journalism practices in the UK, and a chance to make a key change within our newsrooms. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minster and Rupert Murdoch have said they support a conscience clause for journalists.

The NUJ is delighted the Leveson report has sounded the death knell for the discredited Press Complaints Commission and that the model proposed by Lords Black and Hunt also got a thumbs down for not being sufficiently independent of the proprietors. The PCC was like an old boys’ club which looked after the vested interests of the industry and provided no succour for those who suffered at the hands of a press which in the words of Lord Leveson “caused hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.

The union is now meeting representatives of the industry and government to put together a new model which will be independent of politicians and newspaper owners. We will be fighting for a co-regulatory body made up of the broader public with, critically, the involvement of working journalists through the NUJ. With the involvement of the NUJ, this new body should seize the chance to rebuild public trust in the press and promoting high standards in journalism. It would hear individual complaints against its members and will have the power to investigate “serious or systemic breaches” and impose appropriate sanctions. It will provide a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil claims. It would have powers to fine and the carrot of protections on litigation.

It would also be able to take third party complaints, not allowed under the PCC. For far too long we have had a terrible situation where, whether it’s asylum seekers, disabled people, or other groups, have been maligned without the possibility of seeking redress.

We continue to promote the merits of the Press Council of Ireland, where the NUJ plays an important role, and where many of the same companies based in the UK work together with the NUJ in a system of regulation – underpinned by statute – that uses incentives to encourage participation, and reflects much of what Leveson recommends.

The model includes civic society involvement and representation of the profession of journalism, which is provided by the NUJ. There is no direct or indirect state involvement in the regulatory system or in the work of the Press Ombudsman in Ireland. No publisher is forced to join. If they do they enjoy legal privileges including a defence in libel actions. If they decide not to join they forfeit that benefit.

There are parts of the Leveson report that the NUJ will strongly resist. This includes changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the Data Protection Act - changes that would restrict the ability of journalists to properly carry out investigative work and to truly protect their sources. His recommendations appear to suggest that journalists should lose their conventional protections and may be required to disclose data they gather, on request. This would completely impair a journalists’ ability to carry out meaningful – and perfectly proper – investigations.

The changes recommended on off-the-record briefings are unhelpful in a context where getting decent, credible information is already a challenge. Whilst no doubt intended as improving transparency, the reality of this measure will serve to add as a further barrier for sources and whistle-blowers coming forward to speak out.

The union is disappointed that the report did not have more to say about media plurality; a diverse, vibrant press where the power is not concentrated in a few hands is vital for a healthy, functioning democracy. 

Things are moving very fast – David Cameron told a meeting of editors that they must act "urgently" to set up an independent press regulator. The Labour Party is putting together its own draft bill. But if we are to get a regulator that is fit for purpose, the government must look to build consensus and look beyond the editors and the owners’ representatives to put in place a body which will maintain high journalistic standards and offer proper redress to the public when required. The NUJ wants to help make it work.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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