Through the course of his career he has been shot at, arrested and had the nation at his front door during the phone hacking scandal. But Neil Wallis, former Deputy Editor at the News of the World started his guest lecture at the University of Westminster with this line:
“Don’t ever doubt, this is the greatest career”
Our parliament is currently considering and weaving its way around the Leveson Report. Something many of us have heard of, but a report, its fair to say, most of us can’t even begin to understand.
Neil Wallis came to the University of Westminster to discuss with students what the Leveson Report will actually mean for the press, journalists and the common citizen. On the whole, he doesn’t agree with plans that Leveson has set out. He pointed out that the laws being introduced following Leveson had become more than just a ‘complaints’ system underpinned by the statute (law) . His argument is that the government is trying to interfere with free press.
Why does a free press matter though? On this he said “exposing and telling the voter what they (the establishment) don’t want you to know” is of great benefit to the country. He referred to the fact that for 320 years this country has had a free press and constantly asked, “why destroy that legacy?”.
Much of his argument hinged on whether you trust members of parliament (MPs) to represent you. The Leveson Report called for a ‘independent body’ that was ‘under pinned by statute’ so that the public could trust the body. However as Neil pointed out, to use ‘independence’ and ‘statute’ in the same sentence is an oxymoron. Neil argued that if you let politicians interfere now, there is nothing stopping them from amending, tightening and restricting more freedom of expression later on.
Imagine if this had been law during the expenses scandal, he explored, what would have stopped (if they had wished to) parliamentarians passing an amendment that restricted the press from reporting on the expenses of MPs?
Remember though, if you flip this argument; if laws can be put in place, laws can also be repealed. On this, Neil insisted that ‘it didn’t happen often’. It was at this point he reminded us that no matter how well you write a law, if there is a will there is a way, and they will be bent, misinterpreted and used in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine.
Moreover, Neil was keen to point out that Sir Brian Leveson is himself ‘part of the establishment’ and that his report is about more than a new Press Complaints Commission. It has twenty six other recommendations that will affect journalists. Perhaps most worrying from a journalists point of view, is the Data Protection Act, which the report says should be widened to cover them too. This will mean that journalists could be forced to reveal sources, evidence and whistle blowers before they are ready to publish their full report.
Having said all of this, Neil was arrested during the phone hacking scandal. His arrest occurred after the Millie Dowler voice-mail allegations and although they turned out to be untrue, he oversaw a newspaper at a time when it engaged in awful tactics to gather private and personal news stories. Even though 20 months later ‘no further action’ was be taken, can he really argue that bad press practice should go unchecked?
At this point his two most pertinent points should help you form some opinion.
- There are already plenty of laws on the books that prevent the mal-practices like phone hacking and ‘blagging’ that took place at the News of The World
- There are 20,000 journalists in this country. Only 60 have been arrested as part of the phone hacking investigation and even fewer numbers have been charged.
So in short; why take away an age-old institution, one that has spoken the word of the people for 320 years, on the basis of a tiny handful of rotten eggs?
You can find out more about Neil Wallis by following him on Twitter here