Brian Monteith: There’s no need to press for new laws

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I have to admit, and I accept I may be alone in this, but I don’t really care much for Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye and regular panellist of Have I Got News for You.

I never have taken to his far too smug, patronising one-liners and self-opinionated rambles.

Nevertheless I take my hat off to the fellow fedora wearer for what he said at the Levenson Inquiry this week – for it went against the growing received wisdom that the media must be sat upon, legislated and have all sorts of new limitations placed upon it because of the admittedly terrible behaviour of some of the media.

What Hislop said was very simple, and it is a rule we should always consider before rushing to legislate in any matter. It is this, why do we need new laws when we already have existing laws that are perfectly adequate to deal with the problems?

I have seen it time and again, in the Scottish Parliament, be it for the violent and obviously criminal behaviour of drunks, the illicit sale of tobacco or the availability of prostitutes – new laws are invented when existing ones are not applied. Now Westminster politicians are also bending over backwards to show they are prepared to do something (often anything) to demonstrate “we care”.

Ian Hislop was on the money when he pointed out that there are already laws against practically all the heinous crimes that have so outraged us, from the falsifying of credentials and lying to gain access to personal bank accounts to the bribing of police officers to give classified information.

There will always be journalists that break their own code of ethics and there will always be editors that turn a blind eye when they do, or worse, encourage them to do so. Journalists are, however, no different from people in other professions be they doctors, lawyers, architects or accountants in breaking their own professional rules.

I am not saying here that there are not improvements that can be made in how the public seeks recourse from journalists of any rank. I know from my own experience where not just a journalist but an editor that I counted as a friend and had confided to privately on many an occasion broke his own code and sought to publish what was private information given to him in my attempt to help him. It was not criminal behaviour but it was without doubt unethical and it is in this sphere Levenson should look – not to outlaw such acts but to make the opportunity for civil reparation more accessible.

Never have I been so betrayed and yet when it came to seeking redress the rigmarole that was involved using the press complaints procedure – not least that one has to give up any future claim to legal redress – made the exercise pointless and more likely to exacerbate my situation than resolve it. I decided to take it on the chin, be open about what I had said by providing as much context as I could and move on.

Fortunately the editor’s reputation suffered quite badly amongst his peers, and while I learnt from the episode and recognised my own stupidity I feel the procedures for the balance in favour of the public seeking redress can and must be recalibrated in favour of the punter.

More important, though, would be the prosecution of editors as well as journalists that have not just condoned their staff’s criminal action but bred a culture where it was expected of them.

As I have said before in this column, the News of the World was not alone in accessing the voicemails of mobile phones as a way to source stories about A or Z-list celebrities – or worse, victims of crimes – indeed the evidence shows that papers such as the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail were far more active in using the “hacking” technique as a source.

There are editors and journalists that are now coming into the spotlight that previously hid in the shadow of the News of the World, and deservedly so.

The point is that, like some recently elected politicians, there is nothing like a few choice examples being caught, prosecuted and enjoying Her Majesty’s hospitality to set an example that will discourage these traits becoming accepted as normal.

More important than Levenson thinking up new laws would be a few prosecutions by the police. Levenson should leave new criminal laws alone and work to improve the civil process rather than the criminal one. That way we can continue to benefit from a free press working within the law that is insufficiently applied for fear of creating of all things, a stooshie in the media.

The forces of law and order need to get some bottle and take transgressors in the media on, for if we can’t apply the existing laws who is to say new ones will work any better?