Martin Moore’s helpful seven options for the reform of press regulation as explained and amplified by Hugh Tomlinson with his Option 8 suggestion of a Media Regulation Tribunal certainly help focus the mind about the future. But perhaps the first thing to clarify is what it is that we want from an improved regulatory framework in the wake of the phone hacking crisis and the Leveson Inquiry.
Hacking is, after all, illegal. Illegality of itself has never prevented the law being broken. One of the dangers I spot in Option 8 is a blurring of the distinction between the way we currently regulate broadcasting, which traditionally has involved licensing and direct statutory regulation, and the Press, which traditionally has been treated differently. Not least because of the way press freedom was eventually won in Britain.
The future is also complicated by digital technology and the advent of online publishing which makes it easier for anyone to enter the public space to provide information or trade comment or insult. Some might argue that that makes any regulation increasingly irrelevant.
What we need from our current commercial content providers is vigorous, independent journalism that is exercised in the public interest as a vital part of our democratic process. But neither press nor other media should be above the law nor a state with a state. It has to be transparent and in Onora O’Neill’s word “assessable”.
As citizens, we need information we can trust in order to debate and decide the path we take for the future. Where things have gone wrong in the past have flowed in part from an overly competitive market which has put a premium on celebrity and gossip at the expense of investigations into the big issues of public policy, coupled with a sense that all is fair in love and circulation war. The result though has not been as hoped. News consumption is in relative decline and the circulation of most newspapers is falling. There might be a moral here. It certainly leaves us with a potential democratic deficit if there is inadequate funding for news be it international, national or local.
The challenge for the future is how to protect a vital freedom to report and opine without fear or favour while recognising that that right carries with it certain responsibilities to the public good. The problem with Option 8, is as Hugh himself suggests, legalism, cost and access to justice. Nor does it fundamentally deal with the problem of values and standards. It is an enforcer rather than a standard setter. Nor am I reassured by references to the GMC as a model disciplinary tribunal process. Fitness to Practice panels have found themselves tied up for months, if not years, by legal arguments and lawyers seeking what Lord Leveson has already described as seeking to “pin down” the issues.
A settlement for the future probably needs to be done within the framework of a new Communications Act which should consider how we can ensure that essential journalistic activity is supported and funded, at issues of market dominance as well as an improved approach to who is “fit and proper” to own, an improved approach to defamation which makes clear that it will protect all journalism exercised in the public interest and which gives even stronger backing to the statutory regulatory codes for broadcasting as well as an improved code for the Press. That could provide the statutory carrot that Hugh is after without the need for an approach which feels too cumbersome and lawyerly.
Yes, a press regulator needs the ability to investigate and to promote standards as well as simply adjudicate on complaints. Option 3 has many attractions. But there is still chance that the Press can achieve this for itself given the right encouragement. Better for the moment to nudge and cajole rather than use the heavy hand of statute.
Stephen Whittle is a director of Salomon Whittle and member of the GMC. He is a former Controller of Editorial Policy at the BBC and the joint author of “Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest” published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2009 (and discussed by in posts us here and here)