These early days of 2017 are worrying ones for newspapers.
Dangerous myths have grown up in the wake of the Leveson Report into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the Press.
Now, as part two of Leveson looms, it is time to debunk them.
Myth 1: Newspapers should not be biased
Yes, they should… if they want to be! Newspapers that take a strictly neutral view of the world risk being tedious. Readers enjoy publications that arouse their passions, challenge them to see the world differently, and stand up for what they believe in.
A free press can publish what it wants within (in the UK’s case) a strict legal and ethical framework (see below).
This freedom dates to when it was won from the Stuart monarch in the 17th century.
News of domestic political events before then was banned.
King James did not want his subjects discussing or debating politics.
He thought some matters of state were beyond the understanding of ordinary people (some things never change).
The end of censorship 300 years ago brought an explosion of news writing that was often partisan and boisterous, and this wonderfully raucous chorus of competing voices has endured to this day.
The only mainstream news organisation barred from taking sides is the BBC, which as a State-run organisation is bound to be impartial under the terms of its charter.
Regardless of this, groups such as the misguided and hypocritical #StopFundingHate, seek a country in which newspapers whose views it finds disagreeable are closed down.
It is angered by headlines about child refugees and last year’s ruling by High Court judges that Parliament must be consulted before Article 50 is triggered to begin negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Its assertive approach includes pressurising businesses into withdrawing advertising and promotional activities from those papers whose views it finds offensive.
If such monstrous tactics were successful it could mean the closure of newspapers and the loss of livelihoods for hundreds of people.
As I have argued here before, the necessity to listen to voices we object to is the price we pay for being able to have our own say. And that is what underpins all our freedoms.
Myth 2: Newspapers answer to no one
Yes, they do! They are already subject to strict legal restrictions that include the libel laws, official secrets and anti-terrorism legislation, the law of contempt and other legal restrictions on court reporting, the law of confidence and the development of privacy actions, intellectual property laws, legislation regulating public order, trespass, harassment, anti-discrimination and obscenity.
Some believe these laws inhibit free speech far more than is healthy in a democratic society.
In addition, there are regulatory restraints on newspapers.
The Independent Newspaper Standards Organisation is the toughest regulator in the developed world. It holds newspapers to account for their actions, protects individual rights, and upholds standards of journalism. It has the power to issue fines of up to £1million.
This bundle of restrictions places the UK a shameful 38th in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, behind the likes of Surinam, Belize and Ghana. An unlikely position for an industry that answers to no one!
Myth 3: The phone hacking and bribery trials proved you cannot trust journalists
No, they didn’t! Phone hacking, which involved listening in to private voice messages on people’s phones, was an illegal activity.
Only a small number of journalists on national newspapers were involved, and they have been dealt with by the criminal courts in the same way as members of any other industry found guilty of breaking the law.
The practice was widely condemned in the rest of the Press as soon as it was exposed.
Oh, and who exposed it? Not the politicians, the police, or the regulators. It was the Press, namely journalists at The Guardian.
Public outrage over the scandal, and in particular the hacking of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler’s voice messages, gave enemies of the tabloids such as pressure group Hacked Off the excuse they had long craved to muzzle the Press for their own purposes.
The Leveson Inquiry, which investigated not just phone hacking but the “culture, practices and ethics” of the Press, was a politically motivated show trial.
One wonders why the ethics of the banking industry, which has brought misery to millions through its dodgy practices, have not been subject to an investigation of the same breadth.
Things will get even worse for the Press if Leveson part two is imposed.
A pernicious piece of legislation (Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013) would make newspapers liable to pay complainants’ costs, whether they won the case or not!
Everyone who cares about freedom of expression should register their opposition to it at www.freethepress.co.uk before January 10.
Hot on the heels of Leveson came Operation Elvedon, an investigation in which News of the World publisher News Corp, seeking to atone for the hacking scandal, shared confidential emails between journalists and their sources with the Metropolitan Police.
Police used the obscure offence of misconduct in public office against journalists who paid state employees for stories.
Juries did not agree that journalists pursuing stories they thought the public should know about were being treated like criminals and they acquitted those accused.
Of 34 journalists arrested and/or charged in the operation none were convicted at trial and the operation was wound up. It was a saga superbly chronicled by newspaper industry website Press Gazette.
All this this political and legal manoeuvring has helped create a false perception of an industry that does so much good for this country.
It is time to send newspaper bashing the way of 2016 and demand a freer future for us all.