You do not become Lord Chief Justice without being very bright indeed and awfully judicious. But if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest that he might have made quite an important error in his speech last week about reform of press self-regulation.

Lord Judge, in his defence of the current system of press self-regulation, said:

First, crime is crime. If and when crime is committed by reporters with or without the support and encouragement of an editor, it should be investigated, and if on the available evidence there is a reasonable prospect of a successful prosecution, he or they are prosecuted. We do not say that the General Medical Council and self-regulation have failed when, as sometimes happens, a doctor sexually molests one or more of his patients, or like Dr Shipman murders them.

Errrm. Well, actually… doctors (and others) said exactly that after Shipman murdered his patients. See this excerpt from the Media Standards Trust 2009 report on press self-regulation:

In 2000 doctors voted for reform of their system of self-regulation, saying both the profession and the public had lost confidence in the GMC following a number of high profile scandals (particularly regarding the Bristol Royal Infirmary, and the case of Dr Harold Shipman). Doctors criticised the GMC’s slowness, bureaucracy, and lack of openness, and there were disagreements over proposals for revalidation (renewal of professional registration).

The GMC issued a consultation paper in 2000 that proposed a number of changes including agreeing to become answerable to Parliament and ultimately the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence.

Reform was then taken further after Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry published its fifth [Shipman Inquiry] report in 2004 that made stringent criticisms of the existing system and recommended further changes.

Smith criticised the GMC for a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability, and a lack of balance between its role as a representative of the doctors and protector of the patient. The priority of the GMC had, Smith said, become less the protection of the patient than to ‘safeguard the interests of the medical profession’.

Since Smith’s inquiry the GMC has instituted wide ranging reforms that are designed to give the medical profession: greater transparency, greater public accountability, more resources to investigate complaints – and more leeway to initiate investigations, a clearer separation of functions (e.g. between investigation and adjudication), greater lay membership and ‘partnership regulation’ with the public, and further consultation on agreed standards.

The GMC’s role has also been set in a wider regulatory framework in order to make sure the interests of the patient remain paramount.

So if one takes Lord Judge’s Shipman example and follows it through, what would actually happen to press self-regulation is: journalists would press for reform of the existing system (as the NUJ and others are trying to do) and would come up with plans for reform.

The first Leveson Report would make its own recommendations for reform in autumn 2012, potentially followed up with further recommendations following the second part of its inquiry.

This is similar to what happened to legal self-regulation, financial self-regulation, MPs’ self-regulation. Each reform, not surprisingly, tends to follow evidence of serious malpractice. As is happening in the press.

So the Lord Chief Justice’s reference to Shipman is actually quite helpful, though probably in quite a different way than the judge originally intended.

See also:

Martin Moore is the Director of the Media Standards Trust.  This post originally appeared on the Media Standards Trust Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.