Stories bought for cash challenged both sides of the Atlantic

A leading Tory back bencher (Gary Streeter MP) has succeeded in steering a Ten Minute Rule Bill entitled Media (Transparency and Disclosure) Bill to multi party endorsement. Sadly its provisions will not (by this process alone) become law, but it does represent a bold step by a respected parliamentarian in seeking a measure of equality between the “fourth estate” and the other key institutions in our democracy.

To quote from the first paragraph of his speech, which was well received and led to the Bill being passed unopposed, Mr Streeter said that the purpose of the Bill was “to require media organisations to disclose certain information about any payments made by them to individuals for the contribution of those individuals to articles or broadcasts in which they are involved.”

The aim of the Bill was to require media organisations to tell the reader (or viewer) when money had been paid to a source of a story. It would require the media to disclose not only that the story was paid for, but also how much was paid for the story. The cardinal principle of sources remaining anonymous was not challenged in Mr Streeter’s proposals.

Mr Streeter drew an analogy between the Court of Law and the court of public opinion. The media of course holds sway in the latter, which shapes all our perceptions of the individuals and institutions that affect our lives. However, whereas it would be inconceivable in a court of law for a judge or jury not to have to be told that a witness had been paid for his or her evidence, no such information is provided to the reader of a newspaper article.  Without this information the reader is unable to make a fully informed judgement as to whether the information contained in the article should be believed or not.

That is not to suggest that newspapers should never pay money to individuals who provide them with stories. However, the reality is that an individual who is “dishing the dirt” on a high profile organisation or individual will be placed in a situation where the more dirt that is dished the more money the source can expect to be paid. That is because we (the public) pay a premium for dirt in our news pages. Mr Streeter told the House:

I am simply saying that the … reader … should be told whether money has changed hands to put [a] story together and if so, how much. In this age of maximum disclosure and transparency is it reasonable that the reader should any longer be denied this crucial information?”

Mr Streeter went on to observe:

We live in an age when the media is immensely powerful. It can make or break careers and lives. Media has much more information on government policy, and on how the country is run than a humble back bencher like me, indeed more influence than most ministers.”

As to the sheer financial power of the print press, Associated Newspapers recently disclosed an annual income well in excess of £2 billion. The Sun alone makes around £150 million per year. The legislature has too long been so afraid of the print press in particular that it has shied away from any form of regulation. Mr Streeter also observed that this is not a new problem: ‘Even the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte observed ruefullyFour hostile newspapers are more to be feared than 1000 bayonets – the pen is truly mightier than the sword when it is wielded by the media”’.

As Gary Streeter also observed:

Sadly, the Press Complaints Commission is also of little use, more often than not revealing itself to be a toothless tiger – a self-congratulatory organisation that persistently fails those that seek its assistance.”

Mr Streeter contrasted the press’ own activities with the attitude it takes to any mercenary motivation emerging in Parliament: “Remember the outrage that was rightly expressed in the media when it emerged years ago that at least one MP was willing to accept cash to ask questions in this House. We rightly took the view that such mercenary motivation was not to be tolerated in the Nation’s Parliament.”

Mr Streeter’s Bill was passed unanimously with a loud chorus of “ayes”.

During his speech Mr Streeter made an allusion to the payments made by the British media to the police:

“There is a particular problem … and that relates to the police. Many sensational headlines emanate from … police officers who within 5 minutes of a celebrity arrest are on the phone to their favourite reporter shopping the person concerned for cash – the person who is innocent until proved guilty remember. It happens every day. The Editor of the Sun, Rebecca Wade, in her evidence to the Culture Media and Sport Committee on 11 March 2003, admitted that newspapers pay the police for stories … when it happens, the reader should be told.”

On the very day that Mr Streeter was making his speech, the BBC was reporting that the California State Assembly had passed a Bill aimed at stopping police selling information about celebrities who get into trouble. The Bill imposes criminal penalties if money is exchanged for information relating to police investigations. The Governor of California (Arnold Schwarzenegger) will have the final say before the measure becomes law.

The legislation was apparently prompted by leaks of reports about Mel Gibson’s arrest last July on drink driving charges. Within hours of the star being picked up, a celebrity website obtained the confidential police report about his arrest and revealed that Gibson had made anti-Semitic remarks to the sheriff’s deputy who had arrested him. Even though the website claimed it had not paid for the information, the California State Assembly said that the website had violated Gibson’s legal rights.

In addition to imposing criminal penalties on police officers who sell information about their work, those who pay for it could also be fined up to $1,000. The sale by police officers of stories can surely not be justified in any circumstances. However, if there was an obligation on the part of the news media to disclose any payment that had been made, then such activities would surely cease.

The legal principle of an individual being innocent until proven guilty is threatened if that individual can be placed in the stocks by a newspaper and branded as guilty on the basis of an illegal payment to a police officer. The time has perhaps come when the US legislature – so long bound by the unfettered liberty given to the media by the First Amendment – and the UK legislature, so long cowed by the print media in particular, are beginning to recognise that in a democracy which relies on a series of checks and balances, the media needs at least to be required to tell us when it deploys its massive financial power to make news.

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