One by one the editors pop up in front of Lord Justice Leveson and agree that there should be tougher regulation of the press. They may warn of the need to avoid throwing the baby of challenging journalism out with the bathwater of unethical conduct, but most of them accept that the Press Complaints Commission, as presently constituted, is not up to the job.
The PCC agrees. Its new chair, Lord Hunt, acknowledges that it has never really acted as a regulator, more as a complaints and mediation service, and with industry support he has been coming up with proposals to make it more independent and effective.
So that’s that, you might say. They’ve obviously got the message and Leveson’s job now is merely to keep up the pressure until a new “PCC Plus” is ready. Then he can tell the Government the problem is solved and go back to the courts.
Alas, however much we might wish to believe the editors, and indeed however sincere they may be, we would be foolish to trust them. There are two reasons, and the first is that their conversion is so recent.
Just nine months ago, the industry’s ironclad position was that no change was needed and that the PCC was extremely good at keeping papers virtuous. Every time the Commons Select Committee on the Media looked into the subject, for example, press witnesses queued up to insist nothing was wrong.
And back then, the PCC agreed. For years, the former chair, Sir Christopher Meyer, brushed aside much of the criticism, whether of the PCC’s conduct in the McCann case, or of its response to phone hacking, or of its complaints work. The message from the industry was: everything in the garden is rosy.
No doubt we should all be grateful for the change of heart, but Leveson would scarcely be doing his job if he placed any great trust in the editors’ new and radically altered convictions.
The second reason to be sceptical is history. There have been many crises of press standards in the past and the industry’s response has always followed a dismal pattern. It has dragged its feet as long as it could, then changed as little as it could get away with, and afterwards returned as swiftly as possible to doing what it wanted.
When a Royal Commission in 1949 recommended establishing a Press Council whose functions would include upholding standards, the industry did nothing for four years. Only when threatened with a statutory body did it set up something that fell far short of the Royal Commission’s notions.
Eight years later, a new Royal Commission demanded a more meaningful Press Council and warned straight away that legislation was an option. The result was something superficially more impressive but still cautious and in thrall to the industry.
The ensuing decades saw the pattern repeated: spasms of outrage followed by demands for change that were met with grudging concessions that invariably fell short.
That’s how we got the PCC. Sunlit new uplands were promised in 1991 when the press responded to the Calcutt Report by setting up the commission. But its failings were soon laid bare by Sir David Calcutt himself, whose 1993 inspection found that the PCC was just another industry puppet.
This is not a case of the press fighting an unending battle for its liberties. It long ago accepted the need for effective regulation and indeed it has long insisted that such regulation existed. It just cynically would not allow it to happen. If, after all that has happened in recent months, Leveson, or parliament, or the public, accepted the industry’s latest promises, that would be to run an unacceptably high risk of joining a line of history’s suckers – and of failing to learn from all that experience. This time we should ensure change is real and lasting.
This article was originally published in the “Independent” and is reproduced with permission and thanks
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.