The misunderstandings of the Financial Times – Brian Cathcart

20 07 2013

financial_timesThe Financial Times has declared qualified support for proposals by national newspaper proprietors for self-regulation that fall far short of the recommendations of the Leveson Report. Its editorial (£) on the subject, however, reveals that this support is founded on a long list of misunderstandings and errors. Below is our analysis, with the words of the FT’s editorial in italics.

When Sir Brian Leveson delivered his report into the British press last November, he was clear about the regulatory regime that he wanted. A new body, voluntary in character but with strong enforcement powers, would protect the public against abuses. This would be dominated by independent minds. Newspapers would no longer mark their own homework.

This is only one-third of what Leveson wanted. He also set out the basic standards of independence and effectiveness that the self-regulator must meet, and said that it must undergo periodic inspection by an independent ‘recognition body’ to ensure that it did not slip from those standards. He made these proposals because, as his report showed, the press has proved unable and unwilling to regulate itself effectively over a period of 60 years and and the result was a catalogue of shocking outrages perpetrated against an army of blameless British people. Without these changes, the public can have no confidence that the press are not continuing to mark their own homework.

The Financial Times supports this vision. Robust and independent regulation is necessary to rebuild confidence after the hacking scandal. Regulation must be proportionate and sustainable. Well-meaning reforms should not open the door to state interference in Britain’s free press.

If ‘regulation must be ‘proportionate and sustainable’, who is to determine that? Is it to be the editor of the Financial Times, or a committee of editors and proprietors, or the newspaper industry? After 60 years of deliberate self-regulatory failure (doggedly covered up by the industry itself) and after the McCann, Motorman, Jefferies, phone hacking and many other dreadful scandals, are the newspaper bosses really to be accepted as the only judges? That is surely akin to marking their own homework.

As for ‘opening the door to state interference in Britain’s free press’, that is not what Lord Justice Leveson proposed, nor is it entailed in the Royal Charter approved by all parties in Parliament on 18 March. In fact that Charter protects press freedom from political interference more effectively than was ever the case under the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which has been led for most of its existence by party politicians.

In the past eight months, it has been impossible to achieve consensus around a single set of proposals. The mistrust between the press, politicians and victims of press abuse, real or imagined, has made it extremely difficult to strike a sensible compromise.

There is very strong consensus on this issue. Opinion polls consistently show overwhelming public support for the Leveson recommendations. Every single party in Parliament backed the Leveson-based Royal Charter. The victims of past press abuses also back it and the National Union of Journalists backs it. Standing out against it is one small group, the leading newspaper proprietors, who are the very same people who were condemned in the Leveson Report for ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’. The 18 March Royal Charter, moreover, is a compromise: it contains a number of substantial concessions to the press.

When a government-brokered deal was assembled over pizza in the early hours of the morning this spring, no member of the press was in the room. Yet politicians saw fit to have the lobby group, Hacked Off, represented. Throughout, the government has been lukewarm at best about the industry’s own proposals for reform.

There was no deal in the early hours of the morning. The agreement was not government-brokered but explicitly a three-party agreement. No pizza was involved. Hacked Off was not present when the agreement was reached. The press, by their own account, had been involved in ‘intensive talks’ in the months beforehand. And if the government has been lukewarm about the industry’s reform plan, it is because the proposed reforms are largely cosmetic, and are clearly designed to preserve the status quo.

A settlement should be possible. The press has, if reluctantly, accepted the principle of underpinning the regulatory regime with a royal charter, albeit one designed by the industry rather than politicians.

The FT may never have been responsible for deliberate, unethical and often illegal assaults on people’s reputations, privacy, families and livelihoods, it may never have engaged in harassment and surveillance, and it may never have waged campaigns of victimisation against people, but it cannot pretend that this has not happened. The Leveson Report spells it out. It follows that the public needs protection. Leveson suggested a cautious and moderate approach to this and Parliament has backed it. It is not for the industry to pick and choose, though its concerns should certainly be heard (as they were, at length, at the Leveson Inquiry). Still less is it appropriate for proprietors to continue to promote (as if new) the regulatory regime that was rejected in clear terms by Lord Justice Leveson as inadequate to prevent future abuse.

It has been drafted to avoid being amendable only by votes in the upper and lower houses of parliament.

The requirement for amendments to the Charter to be approved by two-thirds majorities in both Houses Parliament is there to protect the press. It would block the unsupported action of a simple Government majority. This is necessary because without it, the chartered body would be open to interference by government ministers in the Privy Council with no parliamentary oversight.

But certain points are non-negotiable.

This is surely the attitude which, to use the FT’s own words (see above), ‘has made it extremely difficult to strike a sensible compromise’.

If press freedoms are to be preserved, the regime must be genuinely voluntary. It should also balance public protection with freedom of expression. A financially weak press should not be loaded with onerous obligations that deter it from pursuing contentious issues, where reporting serves the public interest and holds the powerful to account.

Parliament’s Royal Charter meets all of these criteria. The press industry proposal, however, clearly denies the public the levels of protection that Leveson declared necessary and so exposes people unacceptably to the risk of outrages in the future. The reference to a ‘financially-weak press’ is curious. As the Financial Times must know, the big national newspaper groups which caused the problems that gave rise to the need for change are highly profitable.

The pizza charter does not strike the right balance. For example, it would require the regulator to offer a free arbitration service for claimants to seek compensation. This opens the door to “claims farming” and adventurous complaints. Its attempts to set editorial standards are too removed from those with deep experience of journalism.

There is no ‘pizza charter’, and this is a piece of rhetoric unworthy of the Financial Times. The persistent alarmism about the arbitration service (which was originally a proposal by the industry) is misinformed and mischievous, while Parliament’s Royal Charter makes no attempt whatever to ‘set editorial standards’.

The industry is consulting on a proposed regulatory scheme that would dovetail with the rival charter it has submitted. This has much to commend it. Under the industry’s plan, the regulator would certainly have teeth – such as power to impose fines of up to £1m, to initiate investigations and trawl through internal emails if required – but the pitfalls of the politicians’ charter would be avoided. For example, arbitration may be offered, but only if a pilot scheme confirmed its affordability.

Whom is the industry consulting? Itself. And the proprietors’ scheme is one of cosmetic reform. Its investigations scheme is grossly tipped in favour of any newspaper that might be investigated and it could almost certainly never impose a fine of £1m. It will be surprising if newspapers fail to approve of this. If such manoeuvres were going on in, say, the banking or insurance industries, we would expect the Financial Times to show a little more scepticism.

Though marginally less onerous than the politicians’ charter, it would arguably afford the public more protection from abuse because it is likely to enjoy support from a broader swath of the industry. One risk with the politicians’ charter is that many publishers may decide not to join.

Again, the industry alone seems to be the arbiter here. And again, if any other industry mired in scandal decided to boycott the findings of a duly constituted public inquiry, subsequently endorsed by every party in Parliament, what would the Financial Times say?

There remain problems despite the industry’s broadly sensible plan, including worrying new statutory powers, arguably in breach of European law, that specifically threaten the press with exemplary damages. But the bigger question is whether the regulator would be sufficiently independent. The old Press Complaints Commission has been more lapdog than watchdog. There is of course a balance to strike. Editors should not be their own judge and jury, but people with proper experience of journalism must be heard too.

The industry’s initial proposals were too one-sided. While envisaging a regulatory board dominated by people from outside the industry, they gave the press in effect a veto over appointments. The latest concession makes it more balanced, with appointments to the board agreed by consensus. This symmetry should reassure that the industry cannot simply stuff the board with compliant figures.

A soupcon of scepticism at last, though only a soupcon. If appointments are by consensus, does that not mean that those participating have a veto? And is the Financial Times now prepared to take a stand against the total domination of the proprietors’ proposed regulator by the proprietors themselves? They want a perfect replica of the domination of the PCC by the proprietors‘ body PressBoF – one of the chief faults identified by Leveson. Also, is the Financial Times prepared to object to the breathtaking bid by PressBoF, through its Charter petition, to acquire actual ownership of the inspection body that is supposed to act on the public’s behalf?

Last year, Igor Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, warned of the perils of attempting to regulate the press and the need to avoid government involvement. He has been proved right. Wherever possible the press should be free to operate under the law. Many of the serious abuses uncovered by Lord Justice Leveson were already criminal offences.

Has the FT read Igor Judge’s speech? Yes, he spoke strongly of the need for press freedom, as, in his report, did Lord Justice Leveson. But Igor Judge also called for compulsory regulation of the press.

The industry’s proposals are not perfect. Tweaks may be needed as the media landscape changes. The costs and future membership must be defined. But overall they are the best hope of achieving Lord Justice Leveson’s vision.

If newspapers are sincere about wishing to have high standards and to win back the public’s trust after years of appalling outrages (which are not mentioned once in this editorial), then the appropriate course is obvious. They should do as the judge, in his very balanced report, has recommended. They should set up a self-regulator and ensure that it meets the very basic standards that will be required by the inspection body to be set up by Parliament’s Royal Charter. Those standards pose no threat whatsoever to press freedom.

And if the Financial Times wants to hear the views of victims of press abuses, which the Prime Minister has repeatedly said must be ‘front and centre at all times’ in this debate, then we can arrange that.

Brian Cathcart is Executive Director, Hacked Off


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