A free press is of inestimable value

In a recent radio interview, I was asked what my father, a former KGB agent, could teach us in Britain about a free press. The answer is: everything, writes Evgeny Lebedev

Evgeny Lebedev

Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of the trustees for The Journalism Foundation

IN A RECENT radio interview, I was asked what my father, a former KGB agent, could teach us in Britain about a free press. The answer is: everything. We know exactly what it’s like to live in a country where freedom of speech is constrained, and we know the inestimable value of the freedoms we have in Britain, encapsulated, for good and sometimes for ill, in the British press.

There has been a good deal of theatricality about the early days of the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and culture of the British press. That’s not that surprising, given that many of those appearing were actors, and the appearance of some of the big beasts of Fleet Street – the likes of Paul Dacre and Kelvin MacKenzie – at the seminar to launch the enquiry gave the whole set piece a drama of its own. As Leveson got under way, you could survey the courtroom and see almost every aspect of the national and regional newspaper business represented – editors, columnists, political editors, managing editors, legal chiefs. But there was one group of people – a diverse, sometimes tricky, crowd, admittedly – who were notable for their absence.

The proprietors of our national newspapers – of which I am one – seem to be playing a peripheral role in the Leveson Inquiry, even though its findings are certain to have a lasting effect on the governance of the newspaper industry and the way we conduct our business. As proprietors, our opinion on, say, self-regulation must surely be of interest and relevance to Lord Chief Justice Leveson. It is proprietors who hire and fire editors, and who must hold them to account.

These are perilous times for our industry, and I’m not just talking about the financial pressures that are crowding in on us from every direction. The threat of statutory regulation hangs over us. The PCC has been shown to be unfit for purpose. The phone hacking scandal has dragged the more responsible elements of the British press – the overwhelming majority, let it be said – into the mire, too.

As the Leveson Inquiry gets into its stride, the picture it is painting of our industry is not a pretty one. The compelling evidence of public figures like Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller has been amplified by the testimony of others who have had notoriety thrust upon them, sometimes in the most tragic of circumstances. The tales of suffering at the hands of our media is something that clearly calls for a strong response; but I hope that response recognises the distinction between the tabloid and quality press. It was the tabloid press that hacked phones, and it took the quality press to expose it, while regulators and police alike failed to.

Nevertheless, I think it would be a sad day if our national newspapers, whose vibrancy and diversity is celebrated the world over, should be subject to statutory regulation. It is fairly safe to say that we proprietors all agree on this. I cannot be completely certain, however, because rarely, if ever, do we meet as a group. One of the great strengths of the British newspaper market is its competitive nature: it’s what gives our papers their edge. But sometimes we should put our factional interests to one side, and do what’s best for our industry, an industry that faces so many challenges these days. I plan to invite other proprietors to discuss self-regulation, privacy and reform of our libel laws. Whatever form the new regulation takes, it must be truly independent of the industry. I suspect my views on regulation are more radical than some of the self-serving proposals we’ve heard in recent days, but if the public’s trust is to be rebuilt, then radical action is what’s needed.

This, I must stress, is not just a manifesto for self-preservation. Most of us are in this business because we believe in what we are doing, and think the public is best served by journalism that is free and fair.

The public has rightly been shocked by the extent of phone-hacking and shoddy journalism. They are justified in giving us a kicking. But kick too hard and we won’t be able to expose future malpractice. Ask yourself if you would rather a free press, or a press at the whim of political masters?

To that end, I am pleased to announce today the launch of The Journalism Foundation. The purpose of the Foundation is to promote and support free and independent journalism anywhere in the world through projects that have a positive effect on people’s lives.

Their initial projects indicate the scope and breadth of their work: on one hand, they are establishing the first practical training courses for journalists in Tunisia to make the most of their new-found freedoms, and on the other, they are funding a website in Stoke-on-Trent which reports on local council issues in an effort to increase public engagement in regional politics. The foundation is seeking projects, large and small, national and local, which fulfill the primary criterion of journalism for the public good. Every penny raised goes to these projects, and all donations, large and small, will be gratefully received.

I am happy to support any initiative to support these freedoms.

Evgeny Lebedev is chairman of The Independent and the London Evening Standard and chairman of trustees of The Journalism Foundation.
An edited version of this article first appeared in “The Times”

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