Defenders of Democracy: Jonathan Heawood

Photo showing Jonathan Heawood. Photo credit Cllara Aguirre
Photo credit: Clara Aguirre

At a time when our parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before, those few courageous voices in the media and in public life who are prepared to come forward and expose corruption, wrong-doing and lying sometimes appear to be the only upholders of our democratic system. This is the fourth in a series of articles that profiles some of the key figures in the fight for right over might.

A defining moment for Jonathan Heawood, chief executive of Impress, the independent press regulator, came during the 2011−12 Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking by the tabloids. Crossing the ‘great institutional hall’ of the QEII conference centre, where the inquiry was launched, he spotted the mother of the murdered child Milly Dowler standing alone. He describes being cut to the quick by the image of this mother – powerless in the face of the rampant media and dwarfed not only by the hallway but by the magnitude of what had happened to her – and the realisation that her distress had been compounded by journalists hacking into Milly’s phone.

Heawood’s journey from advocate of an untrammelled free press to challenger of absolute press freedom began with his move from academia to writing book reviews for the Observer. He rose to become literary editor, before moving on to edit the Fabian Society’s Quarterly Review and then to the English branch of PEN in 2012.

His views changed and developed over these years: “At PEN we strongly sided with the author and publisher against attempts to censor the work of writers. We thought that free expression always won in these arguments.” Gradually he realised that some situations, particularly those involving the media, were more nuanced and complex: “Sometimes journalists weren’t telling the truth, and in that, they were harming people and harming democracy. Why should a newspaper or its owner be free to do whatever they like, just because it’s a newspaper? Why should they abuse their power to silence other people?”

The image of Milly Dowler’s mother standing alone and isolated in that great hall destroyed the last wall of defence he had built in his mind around the myth of press freedom. He believed that the findings of the inquiry would have a similar impact on all those involved, and that the Leveson recommendation for an independent press regulator would be welcomed with open arms by the industry: “Trust could be rebuilt, the wrongs of the past could be righted, and a new era could be marked.”

Instead, to his deep disappointment, “the majority of the press said it was an attack on press freedom and democracy, and they continued much as they had before”. So the man that the Sun delights in calling a ‘sinister zealot’ (which immediately puts him on the side of the angels) decided that something had to be done: “Who is going to do it? And somehow it turns out it was me.”

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He had a naïve hope that he could act as an honest broker between Hacked Off, campaigners for the victims of press intrusion, and the editors and journalists of the popular press: “I thought we may be able to find a resolution. I thought that I could create something that would pull people together.” In 2013 he co-founded Impress to be a truly independent voice in regulating the press, while in 2014 the main Fleet Street titles set up a rival body, IPSO, which would be relatively toothless. Impress has more than 150 publications signed up to its ethical code from the rapidly growing independent end of the industry – citizen journalism, local and political outfits and communities not well represented in the mainstream press.

Heawood believes that the independent sector represents a positive alternative future for journalism. In his book The Press Freedom Myth he has written about the five roles that democratic states should play to encourage the best and mitigate the worst aspects of our modern media. Pursuing that interest, he is currently seconded to the Public Interest News Foundation, which aims to support and encourage the growth of diverse local and national news organisations.

“We need a huge shift of mindset. Social media helped us to go behind the scenes, to expose the 20th-century model of the establishment represented by a rather austere news reader. And, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we all went behind the scenes and saw the establishment for what it really was: just a bunch of little old men. It seems to me to be good for democracy that the media should be much more diverse – and essential that it should have strong ethical values.” We may have a while to wait to realise Heawood’s vision.

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