Controlling the press is the “last thing” the man who chairs Britain’s new newspaper regulation body wants to do.
As a senior judge, Sir Alan Moses presided over high-profile court cases including the Soham murders. His latest challenge is chairing the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).
He knows what is like to stand in the public glare but he wants to ensure Britain has an “unruly” and “fearless” press.
Sir Alan said: “The last thing Ipso wants to do is control or govern the press. We don’t want a controlled or governed press.
“We want a fearless press that from time to time will cross over not only lawful boundaries but acceptable boundaries. But far better that from time to time they do that and that then they are punished than we have a timid press who fears to tread because then there will be nobody to protect us at all.”
As a self-described “bolshie” schoolboy he ran into trouble while editing a school newspaper when he wrote a “very rude piece about school prefects”.
Now, he wants Ipso to ensure papers are able to hold the powerful to account and that people who are victims of press intrusion can win redress.
He said: “You simply have got to devise a system whereby the freedom is preserved and yet those who are traduced by breaches of the code get proper protection, proper recompense, and a right to reply and a right to correction.”
Ipso was launched in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry.
It is backed by many of the biggest companies in the print media but it has no plans to seek official recognition under the terms of a royal charter – this smacks too much of political interference.
Sir Alan acknowledges that groups such as Hacked Off and many of those who have had painful experiences with the press are dismayed.
He said: “I know they are bitterly disappointed and to some extent angry that what Leveson said should happen hasn’t happened.”
However, he wants to meet campaigners and those whose lives have been “ruined” and ensure that Ipso provides the best possible service.
Sir Alan, 68, said: “I want to talk to them. I want them to understand not only that I want to listen but more than that – I want to hear from them how they say, given the situation, it can be improved.”
He is also adamant that some form of oversight is necessary, even if it does not come from a recognition body set up according to the Royal Charter.
He said: “I don’t think any board, particularly a new board, can successfully work without some process of audit, of somebody independent, outside, looking at the work of the organisation... I want a body that will be doing that work.”
Dismissing claims that the industry-backed body which funds Ipso, the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC), has a de facto veto on any changes to the editors’ code, he
said: “It’s not a veto... [As] I read the rules there can be no changes to the editors’ code unless it’s approved by Ipso so I don’t accept that as a veto.”
He describes a story that during the Soham case he threw a pile of newspapers across the courtroom as “a very good myth” but says in reality it was less dramatic – “I did drop it quite noisily but it wasn’t an actual throw.”
However, he has clear sympathy for innocent people accused of crimes who have to fight through a crowd of photographers on the way to court.
He said: “Just suppose you’re innocent and what you have to do is push past these great long camera lenses that manage to capture that moment of complete abject fear and misery and horror which is then printed. I just think that’s cruel.
“Whether it’s in breach of the editors’ code or not I’m not sure but I think that sort of bullying cruelty – whether it’s a matter for Ipso or not – [I] simply don’t think it’s acceptable.”
The outgoing Court of Appeal judge was particularly concerned by the media portrayal of Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates.
When Ms Yeates went missing in December 2010 Mr Jefferies became the focus of lurid headlines and later won damages from a string of newspapers.
Sir Alan said: “Certainly, somebody ought to be saying in public, ‘Cut it out. It’s not fair. How do you think there’s ever going to be a fair trial?’
Imagining himself in a similar position, he said: “If I’m accused of a crime the big story is ‘Moses accused of this terrible crime.’ The fact that five minutes later I’m triumphantly acquitted and they got the wrong Moses isn’t of any interest and it’s not newsworthy.”
The legal system is wrestling with the challenge of reconciling freedom of expression and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the “right to respect for private and family life”.
Acknowledging there has not been a “very good definition of what a respect for private life means,” he said: “The real problem, really, is – and it won’t happen because it’s too expensive – is what you want is a statutory law of privacy with a defence of public interest and the courts then determining – it would be good to have a jury, which is what Geoffrey Robertson suggests – [those] cases where it can be published and those cases where it can’t.”
When asked if he can see the case for a US-style First Amendment, which would ban any Government restriction of freedom of speech, he said: “Of course there’s a case for that but what is so interesting is [that American newspapers are] so boring... So you’ve got complete freedom there but you end up with a very dull press.”
In the days and months ahead he will have to tackle the challenges of protecting both the rights of the public and the press in the digital age. It’s a mission Ipso’s critics claim the body cannot fulfil but Sir Alan relishes the opportunity to prove them wrong.
He said: “If it worked this time, it would be an amazing achievement.”