, Salem, MA


December 18, 2012

Watson: British press scandal a warning for readers, journalists


The Sun, for example, ran a fabricated story about a Muslim plot to kill prominent British Jews. The Daily Mail ran a false story that actor Steve Coogan was responsible for another actor’s suicide attempt. The Daily Express printed a headline, “Migrants more likely to claim jobless benefit,” even though the study cited established just the opposite.

The Leveson report cataloged a litany of irresponsible journalism, and concluded that the British press has too often been reckless, negligent, unprofessional, criminal, unethical, and bullying. It has operated with disregard for the effects of its activities, both on individual lives and on the public interest.

The report recommends the establishment of a new, independent press monitor. This would not be a government regulator but a private, industry-organized watchdog. Britain’s press had such a monitor, but it had insufficient power to fine or discipline wayward newspapers.

Auspiciously, editors now agree that a new regulator must be more formidable than the old one. They also have a strong incentive to institute this reform, because Britain’s parliament and public are threatening statutory regulation if the press doesn’t create its own real policeman.

It is my strong hope that the industry will create a new, powerful monitor and also improve its own standards. It would be very difficult to write forever-wise regulatory legislation that could take into account all of the realities and sometimes envelope-pushing circumstances of creative, investigative journalism. For there are an infinite variety of circumstances and methods and sources used in the best, most ethical, investigative journalism.

That said, it is a sure thing that some irresponsibility, deliberate distortion, calumny, omission and cravenness will remain in the British press, just as they exist in the American — and every — press.

That is why freedom of the press ultimately is paired best with an educated, savvy public. In a democracy, where the participation of citizens is based partly on the information they gather from the media, readers must be vigilant and knowledgeable about their nation’s papers, radio, TV and the Internet.

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