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Leveson Inquiry and Restoring Public Faith in Journalism

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Another week brings another damaging series of revelations at the Leveson Inquiry. And you do have to worry that there may yet be worse to come. But all the evidence of phone-hacking, unwarranted invasion of privacy, bribing of public officials and who knows what else (note that we have yet to hear about the relationships between newspapers and politicians) will culminate in the crucial last stage of the inquiry when the issue addressed will be the nature and stature of a new regulatory regime for the press.

It's becoming clearer that we're moving towards some new form of independent press regulation that is neither statutory nor self-regulatory in design. Much of the discussion inside and outside the Leveson hearings focuses on how newspapers can be persuaded or "incentivised" to sign up for what will still be in essence a voluntary regulatory framework.

In recent weeks two substantial attempts have been made to describe in outline how such an approach might work - my own report for the Carnegie UK Trust, and the more recent roundtable proposal for a new Media Standards Authority. There are considerable areas of agreement: the need to include online as well as printed media; the use of accreditation as a commercial incentive for participation; the ability of the new regulator to conduct proper investigations and (in the most extreme cases) impose financial penalties.

One important foundation on which to build better journalism in the digital age will be the creation and adoption of a new industry-wide code of conduct for all journalists and news organisations. It would provide much clearer guidance on the higher ethical and editorial standards expected - standards which ought to be universal and transferable between all bona fide press, broadcast and online news services.

The Editors' Code of Practice that forms the current rule book of the Press Complaints Commission is very limited, not only in its advice but also in its ambition for journalists. Significant omissions include such things as declaring conflicts of interest, avoiding plagiarism, giving a right of reply to allegations, recognising a clear distinction between advertising and editorial and any policy or guidelines relating to the (increasing) use of anonymous sources as the basis for news stories. In essence, the PCC Code is a rather restricted list of things a journalist shouldn't do, but it doesn't carry within its rather grudging and legalistic text any real sense of the important mission and purpose of journalism.

The vast majority of people who come into journalism are highly principled and have a strong sense of professional purpose and public service. A new ethical code needs to be authentic and inspiring to journalists, but also clear and reassuring to the public who depend upon them for information and who support newspapers through their taxes - not just with the VAT exemption costing almost £600 million a year, but also the huge investment in subsidised media facilities and in thousands of press officers on the public payroll.

Journalism is based on trust, to deserve which you need to have both integrity in your approach and a high degree of skill in your execution. And integrity is not a software application. There's nothing you can click on and download to make something true and fair and accurate. It has to be in the professional DNA of any decent news organisation and its journalists.

We need to set the bar a bit higher. A new code would help to define the profession of journalism. This has become ever more important as media platforms converge and more and more new entrants arrive to challenge traditional news suppliers.

The Carnegie Plan - the set of recommendations from my report - is intended to act as a contribution to the debate, and to provide the basis for further thought and discussion.

A central theme is making sure our society gets the journalism it needs, because you can't just leave it up to highly commercial media or indeed to the politicians. Let's rebuild public trust and let journalists be journalists.

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