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Phone Hacking and the Press: do we now need statutory press regulation?

This week’s News International phone hacking meltdown has brought the question of media regulation to the forefront of political debate.   A number of commentators (see, for example the Angry Mob blog) have drawn attention to David Cameron’s remarkable U turn on the subject of the PCC – in two months it has been transformed from a body which “has come on a lot in recent years” to one which was “ineffective and lacking in rigour”.  The reason for the new found desire of the political establishment to take steps to control the press was, paradoxically, a classic “media storm” over the past 7 days, beginning with Milly Dowler and going via Soham and 7/7 to soldiers’ families. The flood of outrage rose so high that “something had to be done”.

It is entirely predictable that the comments of the Prime Minister (and the leader of the opposition) on the PCC would not meet with press approval.  The Daily Telegraph complained of his “self-serving attack on press freedom“.   In a characteristic piece in the “Daily Mail”, Stephen Glover tells us that “Cameron can’t be allowed to shackle a free press“.   The Chief Executive of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, was widely quoted as expressing what might be thought to be surprising thought that the idea that the scandal had shown up a failure of ethics across the industry was “total nonsense”.  The PCC itself had a curious response to the Prime Minister’s comments

We do not accept that the scandal of phone hacking should claim, as a convenient scalp, the Press Complaints Commission. The work of the PCC, and of a press allowed to have freedom of expression, has been grossly undervalued today.

However, as the PCC has said consistently, it believes that the outcome of phone hacking should be a more independent PCC. It is confident that it is precisely what the Prime Minister’s inquiry will also have to conclude. There should be fundamental reform of the system, as we have already recognised and called for. But the PCC can, in the final evaluation, play its part in this“.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with the PCC, but it should be fundamentally reformed and replaced with … the PCC (new and improved).

But, whatever the view of the press, it seems clear that politicians now want to see the end of the PCC in its current incarnation.  Although, strictly speaking, only the press can bring the PCC to an end, Parliament can of course replace it by statutory body.   And the threat of such replacement will, in practice, mean that the press will go along with any non-statutory” regulatory measures which are recommended by the proposed inquiry into media ethics.

The central question is whether PCC will be replaced by some new, improved, form of self-regulation or whether the politicians will now draw the line under the last major self-regulated group in Britain and bring them under independent oversight.

The view that statutory regulation is equivalent to “state censorship” is widely held by politicians and journalists – although such complaint is not made by the independently regulated broadcasters.   As result, there are many who believe that the only possible result of the “inquiry into media ethics” will be a “Press Council mark 3” (the PCC being mark 2).  Roy Greenslade described the PCC itself as “another phone hacking victim” but went on to predict the result would be

“a body will be created with a new name, new members, a new staff (pity – because the current crop are excellent), a new logo, a new website (a good one was already under way at the PCC) and it will be much the same as the current commission.  There is no alternative”.

This has, up to now, been the conventional view: that there is no political will to introduce effective independent regulation of the press.   But it is possible that things have now changed.

The always thoughtful Kevin Marsh has suggested six priorities for a new press regulator:

  • Regulator, not mediator.
  • It must become truly independent.
  • It will need a new funding arrangement – he suggests that this should be placed on a statutory footing: if you want to run a newspaper, you pay the levy.
  • It will need a new, stronger Editors’ Code:  He makes the point that:

“The current code of the PCC is the least restrictive that newspaper editors themselves could contrive. Its flimsiness is striking if you read it alongside any US newspaper’s code, or that for major news agencies such as Reuters. It compares badly, too, with the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, Ofcom’s code, or even the NUJ’s.”

  • It will need investigative powers and a mechanism to trigger them.
  • It must be able to impose proper sanctions.

This is not a bad list for a start.   But it is difficult to see how such priorities could be implemented without a statutory framework.   If a new regulator is a “self-regulator” and is, therefore, voluntary a newspaper which does not like the sanctions can withdraw.  The “Express” newspaper group has already left the the PCC.  If, for example, a tough new regulator could impose substantial fines isn’t it likely that a newspaper which did not agree with its conclusions would simply leave?

The solution is a simple one: statutory regulation on the OFCOM model.  Anyone who publishes in the United Kingdom would be regulated by such a body – OFPRESS (or rather, in an age where newspapers are going digital and have “TV” channels and twitter feeds, a combined broadcasting and press version, OFMEDIA).   This would be independent of both press and government.  If a publisher broke the rules it would be sanctioned – fines or, in the case of persistent offenders, a order closing the publication down.  This has the virtue of clarity and consistency and removes the anomaly of the press being the last serious “self-regulated” body in the country.  Doctors, lawyers and MPs are independently regulated.  Why not the press?

Kevin Marsh draws attention to this observation:

70% of the public trust regulated broadcasters; 20% trust the unregulated press. You do the math“.

2 Comments

  1. Joe K

    Yes, we do need statutory press regulation, and sadly, it will cost the taxpayer. But the PCC has amply demonstrated its failure to practise impartiality in most cases.

    And it appears that you didn’t permit my comment outlining a specific example of the PCC’s mealymouthed approach. So it goes…

    http://inforrm.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/opinion-stars-desert-the-pcc-jonathan-coad/

  2. Joe K

    In retrospect, I should have typed ‘true impartiality’, because the PCC have always, in my experience, been able to ‘fake it’.

    I shall also take this second bit of the cherry to recall something said by one of their representatives, on ‘PM’ I think, last week, that the PCC could not be ‘abolished’ because it’s existence was a matter for the press. This is exactly the kind of high-handedness which characterises the PCC’s disappointing attitude.

    On Roy Greenslade’s view of the quality of the staff, and Jonathan Coad’s estimation of the PCC director, Stephen Abell, in that entry I refer to above, it’s interesting that people have such diametrically opposed views to my own. On the face of it, I could assume that this is because they haven’t actually experienced the ‘ugly face’ of the PCC, but I can’t – in fairness – omit the possibilitly that either I am the significant differential – I just get up their noses – or worse, I am being subjective myself, and see a cupcake as a carrot.

    I can only suggest that if the blog’s owner/s think the latter may be the case, they should examine my testimony (it should still be on record somewhere), and judge for themselves if I was the one being unreasonable,,,

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