20 November 2007

Why secrecy is bad for you

A passionate plea for the benefits of openness and a condemnation of the culture of secrecy was the subject of the latest guest lecture to be held by the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield.

Bob Satchwell

Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, argued that journalists had a duty to resist creeping attempts to restrict what could be reported.

He told an audience of students and staff: “Secrecy is not only unbelievably bad for the media, it is bad for the public and bad for the government too.

“Secrecy breeds suspicion and contempt, whereas openness promotes confidence and respect.”

Satchwell, former editor of the Cambridge Evening News and ex-assistant editor of the News of the World and assistant editor of Lancashire Evening Post, detailed areas in which the Society of Editors has battled against attempts to curtail the freedom of the press. These range from the contempt laws, the data protection act, attempts to give coroners the power to exclude reporters and moves by sporting organisations to control reports of major sporting events.

Of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) he said: “For more than 20 years we worked with the Labour party in Opposition to promote a FOI. Once they had tasted power they gave us a watered down Act, and then they tried to water it down even further, fortunately they have changed their mind on that.”

Satchwell said it was right that the pursuit of accuracy should be unstinting and he said the establishment of self-regulation under the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was the right thing to do for both ethical and marketing reasons.

“We have to show the public that we believe in standards – if they don’t believe it they won’t value it and they won’t come back to our newspapers, broadcasts or websites.”

He also offered a robust defence of the red top tabloids, often targeted by critics of journalistic standards: “People say the tabloids are in the gutter. But that is where they have to be to catch the rats of the political world and to expose corruption and hypocrisy.”

Future guest lectures will be delivered by PCC Code Secretary Ian Beales (December 4), and Kevin Marsh of the BBC (December 11).