Bishop of Chelmsford: in a ‘post-truth’ era, proper regulation can offer newspapers salvation

On 20th December 2016, Lord Best moved that the House “take note of the Report from the Communications Committee Press Regulation: where are we now? (3rd Report, Session 2014–15, HL Paper 135)”. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who is a member of the Communications Committee, spoke in the debate.

Chelmsford 251115The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for bringing this debate to the House and for his wise and winsome chairing of the Select Committee on Communications. I speak as a member of that committee. I was not part of the committee that produced this report—that illustrates just how long it has taken for it get here—so I also thank my predecessors on the committee for all their work.

However, as the report makes clear and as has been well illustrated by the contributions so far, the situation is far from satisfactory and questions to government remain unanswered. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, has already explained, in the past few weeks the committee has again been burrowing into the detail of the issues and considering the present impasse. I shall not go over those details again; the noble Lord outlined them superbly, but I think that we could conclude that the carrot is not very tasty and the stick seems so severe that it is unlikely ever to be wielded.

Listening to voices in the past few weeks on all sides of the debate only leads me to believe that there must be some compromise and movement on those different sides, otherwise the plurality of rational voices, particularly in local newspapers, risks being drowned out by a cacophony of individual conjecture, prejudice and pretence that is coming at us fast and furious from social media. I do not know whether noble Lords heard Emma Jane Kirby’s fantastic piece on the BBC’s “From Our Own Correspondent” last week showing that many of the pro-Trump fake news stories were fabricated by teenagers in Macedonia and they made quite a lot of money doing it. In a world where many people get their news from Facebook, making sure that we regulate the press properly has never been more important.

Yes, things have moved on from Leveson, but the ubiquitous prolixity of social media is the most obvious way in which they have done so. The fact remains that Leveson offers the sensible solution of self-regulation for the press, an independent body that is neither in the pocket of the press itself—as IPSO is suspected of being, especially by those with complaints—nor under the thumb of government or some other wealthy group or individual, which is the concern with Impress. Such independent self-regulation is vital for our democracy and never more important than in this present age of so-called post-truth politics. At a time when truth has never been more contested and the digital revolution has brought fake news to new heights, it is not an exaggeration to say that proper regulation can offer newspapers salvation.

Put simply, as people become more internet savvy and, thankfully, increasingly suspicious of those whose voices are just their own, the professionalism of newspapers and journalists, their regard for truth and their readiness and willingness to be regulated could become their unique selling point. “Who can you trust?” is becoming the key question and “You can’t trust anyone” is surely the fearful conclusion that we must avoid at all costs. For newspapers—and perhaps the kind of internet news providers they may end up becoming—this presents an opportunity to be the places we go to first for checked, proof-read, truth-tested and professional news.

Traditionally and still today—this is the long-standing, principled complaint of organisations such as Hacked Off—newspapers seem to think that corrections should be hidden away and that owning up to making a mistake is somehow a sign of weakness. It is not. Christian people and those of a Christian culture know that confession is good for the soul. A good confession involves self-examination, contrition and amendment of life.

Let me given an admittedly trivial but topical illustration of this. A few years ago, I wrote a little book, Do Nothing… Christmas is Coming, which took the form of an imagined conversation between a bah-humbug-I-cannot-bear-Christmas voice in the street and, as it were, the voice of Christian wisdom. In the book, the bah-humbug-I-cannot-bear-Christmas character said he would not send any Christmas cards. The day after the book was released, a newspaper which shall remain nameless published an article: “Bishop says, ‘Don’t send Christmas cards’”. The day after that, I was quizzed about this on Radio 4 and found myself in the absurd position where it was easier to defend something I never said than to try to explain I never said it. That is the absurdity of an unregulated press allowed to do its own thing.

Much more seriously, we should listen very carefully to the concerns expressed this week by the Muslim Council of Britain, which quotes evidence from research undertaken by Cambridge University that mainstream media reporting about Muslims contributes to an atmosphere of rising hostility toward Muslims in Britain. I will not quote them as there is not time, but sadly there are far too many examples supporting this conclusion. Of course, the apologies that usually follow are tucked away in the corner of an inside page.

If the press showed itself more willing to take this on—to embrace self-regulation independently administered by a body it could give its trust to—it would have nothing to fear from this regulation. The press would stand to benefit because we the public are more likely to listen to someone who acknowledges when they are wrong than someone who carries on regardless. It is the difference between a wise teacher and a pub bore, or for that matter an internet bully. Contrition would mean giving equal prominence or something approximating it to the acknowledgement of a mistake and an apology to those affected.

Make no mistake about it, the term “post-truth” and all that is going on in our culture at the moment is extremely dangerous. We need to turn back the tide of this cynicism. Words have meaning. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, said, there is a word for what we are debating here: it is a “lie”. Where there are lies and corruption, where there is deception and hypocrisy, especially in high places, we look for a free press to speak on our behalf. However, where the press itself tells lies there must be regulation, contrition and correction. In this way, we can all learn that confession and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing is not a sign of weakness but the beginning of strength.

Lord Keen of Elie (Minister) [extract]: The noble Baroness suggested that the Government had intervened to suspend commencement of Section 40. That is not factually correct. There was never a commencement provision in respect of Section 40, unlike in respect of the provisions of the Act with regard to exemplary damages. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford also referred to compromise. Again, that is why we are proceeding down the route of consultation at this stage.


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