I do sympathise with all the celebrities, politicians, public figures and others who have suffered from the nefarious activities of the News of the World phone hackers. As a fellow victim (I realised my phone was being hacked when all those voicemail messages praising the brilliance of my blog mysteriously failed to appear – presumably deleted by an unscrupulous reporter making space for more salacious content), I can well understand the anguish caused by such intrusions of privacy.
However, with politicians of all hues clamouring for an overhaul of media regulation, there’s a danger that press freedom will, like the proverbial baby, end up in the ditch along with the bathwater of journalistic transgressions.
When the News of the World ran out of plausible denials and fell on its sword a couple of weeks ago, Labour leader Ed Miliband announced: “It is clearly people power that has forced this decision.” The popular Sunday paper may have been a morally corrupting publication run by morally corrupt people, but people power had nothing to do with its eventual demise. At least, I fervently hope centuries of civilisation have not brought us to a point where melodramatic hand-wringing by the BBC, supported by a raucous cacophony of Twitter activists, has become synonymous with people power and democracy. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said: “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Well, the Turks may have their reasons for not going the distance, but I would hope that in this country we will sail past the stop of hysterical knee-jerk reactions.
One test of democracy is the free and unfettered flow of criticism. If media regulation is imposed rashly, it will become harder, not easier, to expose and criticise the misconduct of corporations like News International. Rather than harness journalists, it’s better to adhere to the principle of publish and be damned, allowing the media to be sued for damages if the rights of others have been infringed. And if certain newspapers fail to exercise self-restraint, we can effectively apply sanctions by exercising our right not to read them! Now that would be people power.