Comment: An urgent threat to the freedom to be biased

Being biased is what newspapers do - that's not where the problem lies
Being biased is what newspapers do - that's not where the problem lies

Journalists should be free to write what is most relevant to their readers. They need to be careful: more regulation could limit their ability to define what's newsworthy.

By Alex Stevenson

After three weeks of ferocious intensity we're finally getting room to breathe. The phone-hacking scandal is so much weightier than the expenses scandal because it reveals the flawed relationships between three supposed guardians of the country. None of the press, the police or the politicians have much to be proud of.

As we pause to ask 'what next', journalists and police officers face an uncomfortable truth. It's one which senior police figures have been aware of, from direct experience, for a long time: of those three guardians, it's the politicians who actually have the power to do anything about it.


The police are, as Sir Hugh Orde said this morning, extremely resilient. They've been through all this before.

It's different for the press. The media has wielded a power of its own which, unchecked for so many years, has developed some dubious cultural practices - just as the expenses system did. Now public scrutiny is on journalists, the worst excesses will be rooted out.

The danger is that fundamental press freedoms are eroded by over-zealous politicians. This won't compromise journalists' ability to uncover wrongdoing: organisations like the BBC, or politics.co.uk, whose news output have to be impartial, aren't stopped from holding the powerful to account. But it will change the face of British journalism for the worse.

Journalists are "absolutely scared and terrified" of the Press Complaints Commission, according to the News of the World's former political editor David Wooding. Mike Grannatt, the Met's former head of communications, believes a "frenzy of self-righteous indignation" is a "lousy place to start setting up regulatory bodies". A trade which has already been a long time in retreat may now find itself routing.

Properly strengthened, the PCC should continue as it has done, with independent figures improving public confidence. But what if this gets taken too far? That is the risk now facing British journalism.

David Cameron's former press secretary, the right-wing Tory backbencher George Eustice, knows a thing or two about dealing with the press. Wooding and Grannatt's comments, like Eustice's, came at an event held in central London by the Policy Exchange thinktank. Eustice explained that he he was fed up with tabloids doing 'hatchet jobs' on policy announcements just because the story was given to a rival publication. "Is that kind of conflict actually good for free speech?" he asked. "Is that in the public interest? I think that's wrong."

It is wrong. But his proposal for dealing with it goes far too far. Eustice wants to see a clearer distinction between 'opinion' articles, like this one, and straightforward news reporting. In the former, the writer can vent their spleen as much as they like. In the latter, they play by the rules of impartiality. He suspects journalists writing news stories blur the boundary far too often.

The problem is Eustice offers a black-and-white solution to a grey-shaded problem. News writing is a subjective practise, not one of certainties. Take the writing of a context paragraph, for example: what information should be selected to help the reader understand the significance of a development? When a politician announces a U-turn, which deserves more prominence: his track record of speeches condemning the policy he has now decided upon, or the changing circumstances which have made his old views obsolete? The only answer must be that which is deemed to be more newsworthy.

Journalists, and the publications they write for, should have absolute freedom to decide what is newsworthy. It covers what stories to write, too: a government announcement about its new skills package, or rumblings of a potential rebellion on the coalition's backbenches?

Politicians from different sides of the divide would offer very different answers. People want to read news that reflects their viewpoint. That's why the great broadsheets of what was once Fleet Street locate themselves so specifically on the political spectrum.

It also means that what is newsworthy depends as much on the perspective of the audience as it does timeliness of the news itself. Judging what is newsworthy is at the heart of what being a journalist is.

Grannatt is right: the fevered atmosphere we've got at the moment is just about the worst time to start making arguments defending bias, of all things. Still, that's what needs to be done. Otherwise, we'll miss it when it's gone.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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