David Sinclair: The cost of one too many in the ‘last-chance saloon’

DAVID Sinclair is one of the five-strong ‘expert panel’ convened at the end of last year by First Minister, Alex Salmond, to consider how the recommendations, following the Leveson Inqury into Press standards, might apply in Scotland.

The panel’s report was published on Friday, mostly to a chorus of criticism.

Here, he explains his side of the story…

TIGHTER regulation of the media is in the offing. All that remains is to establish if newspaper proprietors have ‘won the day’ again and the ‘last-chance saloon’ gets to retain its license until the next ream of victims of Press abuse emerge or if the Leveson findings and principles are finally recognised and enshrined by either a Royal Charter or via the legislature.

Having spent more than 50 years in journalism, I accepted an invitation to join the panel asked to advise the Scottish Government on post-Leveson regulation of the Press. I accepted without hesitation and take the opportunity here to explain why.

I currently work for Victim Support Scotland, a national charity dealing with victims and witnesses of crime. What I saw in the wake of the McCann and Dowler issues, and the many others not listed here, were victims, just as surely as if they had been raped, robbed or assaulted.

Can it really be a matter of pride for any journalist to know that the outcome of their efforts for their employer is the creation of victims?

The media has every reason to be proud of its record of great investigative journalism; of uncovering scandals at all levels of society; of being the recorder of history for generations. It is vital that the media retains the ability to continue that good work.

To ensure that happens, the media must put its ‘own house in order’. Over more than 50 years, media regulation has proved fairly ineffectual and has occasionally managed to reinvent itself, as a Press Council or a Press Standards Commission, rather than address the underling problem: that victims of unforgivable Press intrusion had no real recourse, regardless of what was printed about them unless they happened to have the wherewithal to take the issue into the civil courts.

If a publisher was a member of the regulatory body and did not agree with any issue, it could leave. There was no compulsion of membership and the regulatory body ‘sailed on’ with one less member of the club (a vision of a future ‘Marie Celeste’, if membership is voluntary and there is no requirement to remain a club member).

The real tragedy, currently, is that there was almost total acceptance of the Leveson findings. The case was so clear before his hearing closed and his report was published that most MPs were signed up to change, beforehand. It was simply unacceptable for the Press to be allowed free rein to continue the abuse which even they were forced to acknowledge.

So where are we now? The proprietors or their agents meet secretly with agents of the UK Government to ensure that whatever change might be introduced will be what they want; that they will have a veto on appointments; that the system is something they are happy to live with. That is precisely what is wrong with the approach – it is proprietor-led, not victim-led and Leveson was rightly about the victims.

I have read with interest all of the comment flowing from publication of the report. I note that the National Union of Journalists, eminent journalists such as Sir Harry Evans, and the editors of some of the leading broadsheet titles have broken ranks with those opposing or seeking to limit change.

I hope that rank-and-file journalists will come to realise that their interests are best served by embracing change and a system which serves their readerships without creating victims of Press abuse.

The above are my personal views. I have not discussed them or shared them with fellow panel members but have exercised my right to freedom of expression. As a journalist, I value that commodity above almost all others. But continuing to ‘sup in the last-chance saloon’ is no longer an option for any of us.

David Sinclair is a former assistant editor at The Herald, plus a former president of the National Union of Journalists, and is now head of communications at Victim Support Scotland.

He’ll be updating this op ed for our next Friday Column.