Whittingdale: Journalism Can Shape People’s Lives

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has said that journalism has “a direct impact on the institutions and laws that shape ordinary people’s lives” and that a free press “is one of the pillars of a free society.”

Delivering the keynote speech at the Society of Editors annual conference, Mr Whittingdale talked at length about the importance of local and national newspapers as well as headline industry issues such as the BBC and press regulation.  

He spoke about the challenges facing the industry and continued: “But what does not change is the fundamental truth that a free press is one of the pillars of a free society. Abuse of power, corruption, lies and ignorance all thrive in the absence of an inquisitive and informative media.

“The Sunday Times dogged pursuit of the corruption endemic in FIFA is also at last likely to bring about real change. And the full of horror of the Rotherham sex abuse scandal was only exposed by Andrew Norfolk’s investigation over several years which led to his being named Reporter of the year in March and the Times receiving the Newspaper of the Year Award.

“We obstruct the ability of the press to be free to investigate and publish uncomfortable truths at our peril. Many of us have seen first-hand the chilling effect of the absence of a free press.

It is no coincidence that those countries where freedom and civil liberties are most at risk are also those countries where journalists are threatened, intimidated or even killed. So far, in this year alone, 44 journalists have died while carrying out their duties. And while the majority died in countries where conflict was raging or where there are oppressive regimes, the highest death toll was of course in France – an act of murder at Charlie Hebdo which shocked the world.

“Journalists have a vital role in a functioning democracy. Voters need to know what is going on if they are to make informed decisions. It is the job of the press to hold those in elected office to account. And if we are to maintain confidence in our judicial system then, justice must be done, but must also be seen to be done.

“At a time when the Government is pursuing a devolution agenda with more and more responsibilities and powers passed down to locally elected bodies, that applies even more to local press. Local papers are the bread and butter of journalism. Without them the news food chain dries up. Some of the greatest national reporters started on their local rag. These papers are part of the communities they serve, and people rely on and respect them.

“And it won’t be journalists from national newspapers that sit in on the planning committee debates, the patients’ meetings for the local hospital or the magistrates’ courts hearings. But these things matter.

“Alongside their role in reporting the news, local papers often have a campaigning zeal and can drive change in their communities. These range from the Liverpool Echo’s newly revived campaign to save historic local buildings and Kent Media’s drive to clean up litter in the local area, to the London Evening Standard’s campaign for Angell Town which has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to help residents transform the estate and is now expanding London-wide.

Local papers still have to contend with local councils and other public bodies producing their own news-sheets which take away basic revenue such as that from the publication of statutory notices. Let me reiterate that this Government is committed to ensuring that the independent free press does not face unfair competition from municipal publications – the so-called ‘Town Hall Pravdas’.

“Indeed my colleague Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is taking Greenwich Council to the High Court for breaking the local government publicity code through its continued publication of its weekly town hall newspaper.

“Finally, I am of course currently considering the renewal of the BBC’s Charter for the next ten years. The BBC is not the cause of the problems facing local newspapers. But it has not helped. Newspapers have rightly complained when the BBC has taken their stories and reproduced them without attribution.

“But the BBC’s declared intention to get more involved in local news coverage through collaborative work with local papers is welcome. Commissioning content about councils, courts and public services from local media outlets can support local newspapers and help to increase accountability. In fact, this is something the Select Committee proposed last year.

“That does not mean the BBC employing local journalists, which would further undermine local media. Instead the BBC would commission local news content from local news providers which would then be available to all media outlets. I am delighted that the working group set up by the NMA to take this idea forward is making good progress.”

Mr Whittingdale spoke about provisions in the Crime and Courts Act which will have the effect that publishers who are not members of a recognised self-regulator will normally lose the ability to claim back their own costs in libel and privacy cases, whether they lose or win.

He said: “I have to say that at the moment, I am not convinced the time is right for the introduction of these costs provisions. Given the changes under way within the industry, the introduction of the new exemplary damages provisions, and the pressures on the industry, I question whether this additional step, now, will be positive and will lead to the changes I want to see.”