The Leveson enquiry: an opportunity to dream?

In what she joked was a Martin Luther-King moment, Fiona Fox told the UKCSJ that the Leveson enquiry provided an opportunity for science journalists to dream about how great their profession could be.

Fox said there were “a few simple things” we could do to help make science journalism much better, such as “reporting where the evidence leads,” rather than providing “false balance”. The Science Media Centre, of which Fox is the chief executive, has submitted detailed suggestions on these issues to the Leveson enquiry for consideration.

One of the larger questions that the enquiry has raised is how the press should be regulated. Freelance journalist David Derbyshire and Bob Satchwell, president of the Society of Editors, joined Fox on the panel and both came down on the side of self-regulation. They argued that external regulation would mean defining what is and is not journalism, and according to Satchwell “as soon as you do that you begin to infringe upon the ideal of free speech”.

Derbyshire said we should not assume that self-regulation could not work for the press: “Self-regulation works for barristers, solicitors and doctors. It’s only one form of self-regulation that has failed for the press.”

From the floor, Timandra Harkness, a writer, said that we should be more robust about defending free speech and careful not to regulate it too readily. The principle was so important, she said, that the press had to be “free to be good and free to be bad”.

However, Fox insisted that an independent regulator – one that “has teeth” – is needed. She said it might be complex to get the details right, but it “shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to come up with something better than we have now”.

Other panellists questioned how this putative body could enforce its directives. A question from Mark Henderson, head of communications at the Wellcome Trust, prompted the panel to consider whether tax incentives could persuade the press to sign up to regulations. Legislation could be put in place to keep newspapers exempt from VAT on the condition that they sign up, he suggested. Satchwell, however, dismissed the idea as a “tax on free speech”.

Derbyshire said the Leveson enquiry had been “in my view too wide ranging,” and yet had “not got to the heart of the matter”. A few people did some very silly things, he said, and the enquiry is at risk of branding a whole industry as corrupt.

He went on to argue that, in fact, science journalists act as a “filter” in newsrooms, stopping many low quality science stories getting into print. He said this was a vital part of journalism, which goes unnoticed as “there are no prizes for the journalist who blocks the most bollocks”.

The consensus was that science journalism in the UK is generally excellent, but there may have been a loss of trust. Satchwell had the last word of the session with an ideological-sounding speech reminiscent of Fox’s opening lines. “We need to fight back,” he said, “to expose hypocrisy, to expose wrong-doing; that is the way we will win back the trust”.

Josh Howgego, UKCSJ student scholar