Freelance journalism and the Leveson Inquiry

October 19, 2012

An investigation into the possible effects of the Leveson Inquiry on freelancers by guest writer Daanish Alam

Throughout the Leveson Inquiry, news executives have consistently vilified freelance journalists, who provide a means to assign blame for a paper’s illegal activities without indicting any of its full-time staff. If newspaper owners are to be believed, any unlawful means to procure information for a story are used by "people outside the company", with no collusion with any staff journalists at all. Even when a senior reporter was actually found guilty and incarcerated – Clive Goodman, the former News of the World (NOTW) royal editor and reporter who was jailed in 2007 – it was his co-conspirator, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was made to take the brunt of the punishment for hacking into voice messages relating to the three Princes. Mulcaire – a non-permanent member of NOTW staff – received a six month sentence compared to Goodman’s four. This was despite the fact that out of the 609 calls made to access the voice messages, 478 were made by Goodman and 122 by Mulcaire, according to Prosecutor David Perry QC*. 

The disclosure that Goodman conducted almost four times as many hackings as Mulcaire insinuates the use of illegal tactics was much more internalised than NI previously led the public to believe; it was the permanent employees, not the outside investigators, who were doing the majority of the dirty work. Conveniently however, the two men pled guilty, and so were unable to be called to give evidence at Leveson. The way in which both Goodman and Mulcaire were disowned from the newspaper was the beginning of a sustained agenda of using freelancers as scapegoats in the British news industry.

It is absurd to have to associate Mulcaire with the larger family of freelance journalists. Granted, it is difficult to define what makes one a journalist; a university degree is not necessarily required to become one, and today anyone with a computer and an opinion could contribute to journalism in some way. However, to link private investigators and paparazzi (the two most frequent offenders in the Leveson evidence) with published purveyors of news who just so happen to not be in the full time employ of a newspaper is highly fallacious. 

Yet it is precisely this group that will be subject to censure (possibly total censure) if plans to license journalists, such as those proposed by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, come to fruition. The proposal would limit access to press briefings solely to those journalists whose employers have signed up to a code of practice of a revamped Press Complaints Commission (PCC). These journalists would be provided with press cards, which would be the only manner in which to access official press briefings. Freelancers’ lack of a permanent employer would mean that they would be largely ineligible, while the cost of licensing would alienate smaller papers and blogs as well. The idea has been given credence by figures as senior as the Prime Minister, who said, "we have to see is there a way of saying ‘If you’re not part of [the new PCC], you’re not in the lobby, you don’t get any information from government, you don’t get this or that.**’" Cameron’s comments make clear that in this new landscape, participating in independent journalism is effectively treated as a breach of the rules, deserving of sanction. Unlike newspaper owners such as Richard Desmond, who have financial motivations behind not being part of the PCC (avoiding the possibility of fines, for example), freelancers do not have the ability to opt in at all. Their exclusion from such a plan would be by default.

The threat that this card could be revoked if a journalist was caught behaving illegally is meant to eliminate the danger posed by unregulated members of the press, but will accomplish just the opposite. The aforementioned private investigators and paparazzi would be wholly unaffected by such a change, as they do not rely on press briefings for their journalistic output. Similarly, the countless undiscovered rogue reporters still in the full-time employ of news organisations would not be disturbed by the plans, but rather licensed and legitimized further.

The only possible entry point for freelancers to become licensed would be through a "gatekeeper", such as the NUJ (National Union for Journalists). The proposal is flawed for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it requires the NUJ to implement "an appropriate ethical code and the processes to handle complaints", effectively treating the union as a giant newsroom employing 38,000 journalists, which misrepresents its function. As the NUJ does not publish or have any input into their members’ articles, it is not their job to police their members’ ethical practices either. 

More critically, it is unjust to make a code of ethics and internal complaints systems a precursor to the NUJ being able to license journalists, when the major news organisations would be able to license their employees by default. Based on the fact that it was the news organisations that were under investigation during the Leveson Inquiry, it is unclear why they are "innocent until proven guilty," and their judgement when distributing press cards is unquestioned. For the NUJ to get licensing powers, it would have to prove that it possessed the aforementioned ethical code and complaint handling mechanisms, a contradiction not lost on the NUJ’s General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet. "Why would the industry, why would the newspaper owners, be in a position to somehow guarantee things don’t happen as a result of the press card gatekeepers?" she asked. "I think this is yet another example of how as an editor – a very high-profile influential member of the industry – is trying to pin the blame on … individual journalists***". 

Furthermore, the licensing proposal is made weaker by the sheer unlikelihood that a journalist would actually have his or her card revoked. If the news organisations are the ones who self-regulate their employees, issuing and revoking press cards as they see fit, punishing one of their employees could very well lead to him or her revealing that their orders came from a senior member of permanent staff. According to Stanistreet, the plan "doesn’t account for the fact that journalists operate in a culture that is imposed upon them from above, from the likes of Mr Dacre and others within the industry, and yet under his model he would have all the power and none of the responsibility for that." Even the Leveson inquiry, which has heard evidence from 470 witnesses and cost over £5.5 million, has so far led to only eight people being criminally charged, all of whom were "big fish" in the news industry. There seems to be no interest in prosecuting the regular full-time journalists who were likely complicit in some capacity with the illegal actions of their superiors.

The fact that the vast majority of freelance journalists are not hired to hack into phones and wiretap should not come as a surprise to anyone. To punish them as a group, especially in the name of a better and more accurate press, is highly contradictory. Putting aside the obvious losers in the licensing plan – freelance journalists working in print media – the plans could have the added effect of curtailing Internet political bloggers. The advent of the Internet has allowed freelance journalists to establish followings without being in the full-time employ of a newspaper. Currently, they can attend press conferences, and through their online presence, still express their opinion on issues despite not being published. This freedom of expression is vital in cultivating a vibrant press, where not having a contract with a newspaper does not preclude a journalist from contributing to the public discourse. 

In a larger sense, the Internet is increasingly becoming a vital player in the news industry. This is not because of its purported audience; the average newspaper reader spends 40 minutes with a print newspaper per day, in contrast to 15 minutes per month spent with its online version. Rather, the Internet acts as a check and balance to the traditional print media; granted, not effective enough to the point that it replaces the need for PCC reform, but it provides a venue where the traditional news media can be challenged on crucial facts in their stories. 

For example, the New Statesman’s blog – comprising largely of freelance bloggers – recently highlighted how the BBC was effectively acting as a "stenographer" for the police. Despite having contradictory evidence at hand, the BBC blindly repeated the police’s (fraudulent) statement of events verbatim. After the NS blog’s article****, the police statement (as well as the BBC’s reporting of it) changed to reflect the true version of affairs. Thus, while one of the largest news organisations in the world was reduced to practicing the most minimal form of journalism possible – just sharing an official statement – some relatively easy investigative journalism by a online blog led to both the BBC and the police admitting the truth, underscoring the real world importance of political blogging. Under the Dacre plan, content aggregation and the "passing-on" of other people’s information would be the maximum extent of bloggers’ influence, extinguishing a vital voice in the journalistic discussion. 

The scope of the problem becomes apparent when one realizes that even full-time reporters have no other option when told to employ morally dubious tactics in chasing a scoop. In her evidence to Leveson, NUJ’s Michelle Stanistreet cited journalists complaining about "endemic bullying, huge pressure to deliver stories, overwhelming commercial pressures." Similarly, former NOTW editor Ian Edmondson said the culture was "a case of you will do as you are told and you live in that environment." When these complaints were put to Rupert Murdoch in the inquiry, attributed to an anonymous employee, he asked, "Why didn’t she resign?" Leveson replied that the journalist probably needed a job. It was an accurate summation of the major obstacle to eliminating illegal journalistic techniques; if one reporter is not willing to do something, there are many more that are, making the reporter a hindrance who will likely be let go. 

The degree to which bullied journalists are largely left on their own can be seen most clearly in cases involving the so-called "NISA clause". This clause derives its name from the News International Staff Association (NISA), a trade union that was set up by Rupert Murdoch’s titular company, and makes a mockery of independent unions and the aid they could give to journalists. Under current law, there is a loophole that prevents a trade union from representing a worker if said worker is already represented by another, employer-recognised union. The recognised union does not even have to be independent (NISA was refused a certificate of independence, as its funding comes wholly from the employer). Thus, when asked to do something immoral, a journalist’s only recourse is to ask for help from the very company that they are complaining against. 

It has been suggested by figures such as the Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights (IER), John Hendy QC, that Murdoch himself exerted pressure onto Tony Blair’s Labour government to ensure that such a loophole was allowed to remain as law. The charge is denied, but the fact remains that the NISA clause is a state-sanctioned obstacle for any journalist wishing to expose wrongdoing, demonstrating how deep the problem runs. In a climate where the UK narrowly avoided having the lion’s share of its media owned by one company after News International’s failed BskyB bid, disobeying a superior’s orders could having huge ramifications on finding a job elsewhere. If anything, this should be seen as evidence that there is less incentive for freelancers to resort to illegal tactics when writing their stories; they are detached from the bullying culture, and do not have in-house politicking with superiors to wade through. 

At the current time, Dacre’s proposal remains just that: a proposal. Although highly worrying, it is an unlikely that Leveson will recommend such action, especially considering his recent comments distancing himself from any radical "Ofcom-style" regulation through a PCC-like body. The more pressing issue is what is becoming an increasingly broad and simplistic definition of what it is to be a freelance journalist in the UK today. In the simplest terms, people who write for a living are being artificially compounded with people who take candid pictures of celebrities and conduct covert investigations into their private lives. There must be greater efforts to avoid letting "freelancers" become a homogeneous scapegoat for all the illegalities in the newspaper industry. Statutory underpinning of press regulation is necessary to ensure an excessive invasion of privacy by the press, but a crude curtailing of independent journalism will only accomplish the opposite.

References:

 

*http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6301243.stm

**http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jun/18/journalists-pcc-press-cards 

***http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/feb/09/paul-dacre-press-card-nuj-boss 

****http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/broadcast/2012/07/met-police-statement-contradicted-video