The Athene Debate – The Motion: Newspapers have crossed the moral and legal line

This is just a quick note to thank those who took part and attended our inaugural debate.  It was a thoroughly interesting, thought-provoking and robust evening with our four speakers putting across their views on a topic that has brought scandal to the newspaper industry since the summer.

The debate took place in the week which saw allegations of widespread surveillance conducted by the News of the World ranging from the Royal Family to, as our chair Stewart Francis pointed out, Richard Madeley.  It also saw the return of the younger Murdoch to the House of Commons to be lightly toasted by a committee of eager MPs.
The debate began with a vote on the motion and the overwhelming response from the audience was that newspapers had indeed overstepped the mark on both counts.
To propose the motion – Richard Astle, MD of Athene Communications argued that it was simply fact that newspapers had crossed the legal line, unless the law didn’t apply to them at all.  He went on to state that it didn’t matter if the exposure of Gordon Brown’s son’s illness was against the law, in a sense it didn’t matter how the information was obtained, as people’s grief had to remain private and that time and time again newspapers cross the moral line.
Mark Edwards, the editor of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph simply wouldn’t defend the actions of the NOTW, but he made it clear that not every newspaper would do this or know how to do this (as he raised a Nokia from the early 2000s above his head!).    He went on to say that the phone-hacking scandal had been exposed by the media itself and in effect the industry had regulated itself.  His closing remarks centred on the point that every newspaper is governed by their own readers.
Peter Facey, Director of Unlocked Democracy, said that regulation was needed as the Press Complaints Commission didn’t work and this had been shown with their lacklustre response to the scandal.  He argued that the NOTW broke the law to make money – and their actions were dangerous as News International had become so powerful it became a law unto itself. Regulation became the key topic and Peter stated that someone needed to keep an eye on the journalists as journalists keep their eye on politicians.  He passionately defended the need for a free press – but that we needed one that was fair and that doesn’t turn people into victims.
Last to speak was Express journalist Sarah O’Grady who brushed aside previous arguments and said that more regulation would harm the industry and the UK’s free press.  She argued that phone-hacking had not harmed anyone and the response to the scandal was out of proportion.  She then asked why it was the industry’s job to hold the moral high ground?  Finishing with a positive note on the effectiveness of self-regulation and that the readers should be in control, and they use that control when they arrive at the newsagents every morning.
The floor was then opened up to guests for the next forty minutes as the debate spilled into the assembled audience who held the full gambit of opinion on the topic.  Points were raised about the regulation of the newspaper industry and how and if it should change.  Many felt that the NOTW’s closure was regulation enough and that stricter measures could undermine newspapers’ ability to scrutinise all aspects of society.  Others felt that the industry had simply gotten away with it, that penalties for law-breaking were not strict enough and that malpractice was endemic throughout the tabloid press.
The final vote did not change the initial feeling but there was a swing in favour of those defending the motion.  As the chair mentioned, if the question had been based more on regulation of newspapers then the result would probably have been a lot tighter.
Lots of positive responses from all and then the debate seemed to start all over again in the bar!
Until next time… future topics are very much welcomed.
Steve Titman, Athene Communications
November 15 2011