The press has not received favourable coverage of late. The Leveson report laid bare the extent of the appalling incursions into the private lives of celebrities and crime victims, as well as the cosy relations between the press, ministers and the police.
The media may soon be subject to an independent regulator, if the government chooses to implement the proposed reforms. However the power and indeed duty of the press to exert intense ‘press-ure’ on ministers suspected of breaking the law or behaving inappropriately, even when this leads to their resignation, must remain untouched.
The ‘press-ure’ on a minister to resign before conviction in a court of law is warranted because a role in government demands total dedication, which is impossible under scrutiny from the press and the public. However the solution is not to silence the press until a judge delivers the verdict, because at worst, while the courts deliberate, departmental orders are issued by someone who has acted (and could continue to act) outside the law. Taken to the extreme, the entire rule of law is threatened and there is a very real possibility of corruption.
Two recent examples can offer some perspective. Recent CCTV footage and revelations about a witness in the Andrew Mitchell ‘Plebgate’ affair have introduced the possibility that Mitchell could return to the front bench in the future. The damage to his reputation if the allegations prove unfounded is unfortunate, but he would still be an MP with his name cleared and his career prospects restored.
Consider the alternative that he was guilty and stayed in office, and then had to resign off the back of a conviction. The standing of the British Government would be left in tatters.
Even if he stayed and was innocent, not only would his ability to perform his role be hindered by constant questioning of his integrity, but the case could be thrown out because a fair trial was no longer possible in light of nonstop media coverage.
The second example is Chris Huhne, who resigned due to ‘press-ure’ last year despite protesting innocence, but has subsequently pleaded guilty and will surely never return to politics.
The press is not immune from complaint here. The texts between Chris Huhne and his son, Peter, should not have been published for the sake of the 20-year-old student. It cannot be one rule for Milly Dowler and another for a politician. Equality before the law includes those on privacy. The Leveson report is evidently not the final chapter in this saga.
Nevertheless, the press has done its job. Had Huhne stayed in office, the headlines last week would have read ‘Coalition minister resigns after lying to police’. Instead, they read ‘Disgraced ex-minister quits politics’, which, while still inevitably damaging, makes for far easier reading for Cameron, Clegg, the Coalition and ultimately the British public.
The press should not be restrained from investigating a possible scandal on the basis of a rumour or a small shred of evidence, so long as it acts within the law and within reason. On numerous occasions, an investigation starts with a whisper or a leak from a disgruntled insider. The press must retain its freedom. The alternative is an unaccountable government which believes itself exempt from the law.