The Telegraph and Mail papers and the Murdoch press are unrelenting in their opposition to the Leveson reforms, as embodied in the Royal Charter on the press. Although concession after concession has been made in the effort to accommodate them it makes no difference: they just say no.
Yet the Charter does a job that few could object to: it provides redress for people who have been wronged by news publishers. Any journalist worth his or her salt would surely agree that that is a good thing. Journalism is needs to get things right, and ordinary people should not be left powerless in the face of those who publish about them and get things wrong in ways that cause harm.
The big newspaper groups say their objection is one of principle. They say the Charter is a form of political interference in the press, setting us on a slippery slope to state censorship. This is not just nonsense; it is the reverse of the truth and they know it. The Charter insulates the press from political interference to a degree not seen before.
So what is their problem? Why do they hate the Royal Charter?
A clue can be found in this piece of research, which identifies nine occasions between November 2011 and December 2012 when the Daily Mail breached the Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice for journalists in the same way. Each was an intrusion into private grief for which it had to apologise (often privately) or issue a correction.
You may be thinking that if we know about this thanks to the PCC then things can’t be all that bad, but again no. The PCC recorded these cases on its website along with many others, but it did not tell the public the Mail had a problem respecting people’s grief. That had to be quarried out of the data by the Media Standards Trust. There was no automatic flashing light to alert people inside and outside the industry to nine successive breaches of one code clause by one paper in just over one year.
And it is worse than that. Any regulator that genuinely cared about upholding standards would not only notice repeated code breaches of this kind and draw the public’s attention to them, it would also investigate why they were happening and take steps to ensure they stopped. The PCC didn’t do that because that is not how the PCC operates.
In his public inquiry Lord Justice Leveson looked very closely at the PCC and its operations and he concluded that it was designed in a way that placed the interests of the industry before those of the public. What that means in practice in cases like these is that it will broker settlements between aggrieved people and newspapers – but it will not address the root problem. In turn that means the cruelty carries on and more families suffer.
The Royal Charter is designed to ensure that any future press self-regulator meets basic regulatory standards. Its requirements, simple as they are, would almost certainly ensure that in future:
- All known breaches of the code would be logged and made public and the offending news publishers would be identified,
- Newspapers guilty of or suspected of repeated breaches, or of other significant failures, would be independently investigated so that the regulator and the public are told what (if anything) is going wrong,
- News publishers would be required to learn the lessons of any investigation and improve their internal governance to avoid further breaches,
- If a news publisher refused to learn those lessons it could be fined on a rising scale until it did so.
This is not what the Daily Mail or its friends at the Telegraph and the Murdoch papers want. They are happy to have a code of practice that says their reporters should not intrude into private grief (as is currently the case), but they definitely don’t want a self-regulator that holds them responsible when they fail badly, or punishes them when they wilfully or persistently abuse members of the public. In short they do not want to have to abide by the code.
Going back to those nine cases, it is possible, even likely, that if the PCC had acted early, if it had investigated and challenged the Mail, some of the families in the later cases might not have had to endure the treatment that was dished out to them. It’s also likely that if the PCC had been vigilant on this matter, nobody at the Mail’s sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, would have thought it appropriate to send a reporter to sneak into the private memorial service for Ed Miliband’s uncle a few weeks ago and question those present.
This is not really a criticism of the PCC but of those who – as Lord Justice Leveson so vividly demonstrated – pull its strings. In practice that is the Mail, the Telegraph and the Murdoch papers. And we can see that they are still up to their old tricks if we glance at their latest son-of-PCC proposals.
Their planned self-regulator, ‘IPSO’, will make no attempt to meet Royal Charter standards, but like the PCC it will have the appearance of an investigatory power. In practice, however, any newspaper under investigation will have so many opportunities to obstruct and delay the investigators that it’s unlikely any investigation could be completed. And since under IPSO rules sanctions such as fines would be dependent upon complete investigations, there are unlikely to be any punishments. In other words IPSO would be toothless, by design.
As The Who sang, We won’t get fooled again.
(If you want to know more about the Mail, the PCC and PressBoF, try reading this).
Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off