The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog

Time for the newspaper bosses to listen – Brian Cathcart

Newspaper standHacked Off has pointed out many times recently that the big newspaper groups are isolated and in denial. One of the most striking aspects of their present position is that there seems to be nobody to whom they will listen.

A good example was seen at the High Court this week, when, with the support of 400 pages of documentation, representatives of PressBoF made a desperate and no doubt extremely expensive appeal for a further delay in the granting of the Royal Charter. All of their arguments were crushingly and convincingly dismissed in the judgment, and the judge refused them leave to appeal because their case had so little merit. But they are trying to appeal anyway, because they don’t listen.

It’s the same with every voice that is raised to urge proprietors and editors to do the right thing, the thing that the judge at the inquiry urged them to do: to embrace real change. They don’t listen. Not to the public and their readers. Not to their past victims. Not to the National Union of Journalists. Not to an exceptionally rare consensus of all parties in Parliament.

We all know that there are occasions when it is right to hold to your views and  plough on, even when those around you are telling you to stop. But those cases are rare, and those who act in that way are surely under an obligation at least to listen to other voices.

When the voices are those of your readers, of our democratically elected politicians, of the people over whose rights your industry has trampled, and of senior, independent judges, there is surely a far greater imperative to listen. Your choices remain your own, but they should be made in the light of the facts and the arguments that others put to you.

Yet all the outward evidence suggests that if the newspaper bosses listen at all, it is only to each other.

That is why the arguments they put forward to justify their position are so transparently weak. There is nothing in the detail of the Royal Charter to which they can reasonably take exception – it is painstakingly crafted to protect freedom of expression and it will actually bring them financial benefits – so instead they resort to amorphous concerns based on half-baked hypotheses.

Among themselves, when they talk, it may well sound sensible to suggest that if, in future, Britain had an authoritarian government that wanted to gag the press, that government would be able, through Parliament, to amend the Royal Charter in ways harmful to free expression. They seem to have grasped this idea with enthusiasm, because the hardcore papers and their friends repeat it endlessly. It’s a pity that nobody in their conversation pointed out that it’s nonsensical.

If we had an authoritarian government with a parliamentary majority that was ready to gag the press, it could find a hundred more effective ways of doing so than by tinkering with a Royal Charter that establishes a body that carries out inspections on a press self-regulator. The existence or otherwise of such a Charter would probably be a matter of complete indifference to such a government, since it could pass whatever law it liked in whatever form it liked. In short, if we had an authoritarian government, that and not the Charter would be our problem.

Similarly, when they talk to each other nobody seems to point out the many flaws in their suggestion that the problems exposed by the Leveson Inquiry can all be solved by the law, if only the law is properly enforced. This is a not-very-artful attempt to blame the police for a decade of hacking, blagging, intrusion and fabrication by journalists.

Nobody in their coterie points out that if we are to rely on the law alone to prevent press abuses we will need more and tougher laws, and the police will have to spend a lot more time in newsrooms. Who wants that?

To give one more example, when they talk only to each other they are not confronted with inconvenient facts, and the result is that they make claims that are transparently absurd. They say, for example, that their proposed IPSO self-regulator, with all its faults, would be the toughest regulator in the free world.

This simply blanks out the experience of most of Europe. Many European countries have statutory press regulation and/or a statutory right of reply. Finland, which in 2003 passed an ‘Act on the exercise of freedom of expression in the mass media’, is routinely top of the World Press Freedom Index.

None of the arguments or claims they rely on in opposing change can survive real scrutiny – because they only hear what they want to hear.

How can this change? How can they be lured out of the bunker and into the daylight? That’s a challenge for everyone who believes in the vital role of journalism in our society – which, on the evidence, is everybody.

The change should happen now. The Royal Charter has been granted and will be implemented. Their efforts to salvage and rebrand the Press Complaints Commission as IPSO are doomed to failure. The arguments and incentives for setting up a Charter-compliant self-regulator are so compelling that it is certain to happen even if the big companies continue to sulk. Others will carry on without them.

Trust in newspaper journalism in this country could hardly be lower. Here is an opportunity to win it back by stepping forward and accepting that real journalism has nothing to fear from being held to high standards – the standards that the reading public expects and recognises. If only they will listen.

Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off.


  1. "Robin Lupinhyo"

    So many straw men. This must be Edenbridge-by-the-web.

    The argument about criminal law is nothing to do with regulation. Hacked Off conflates phone hacking with legal yet objectionable stories such as the Ralph Miliband coverage and objectionable and actionable stories such as the libels visited upon Christopher Jeffries. These are three separate categories of behaviour and require three types of response yet Hacked Off blurs the distinctions between them.

    Phone hacking, computer hacking and other criminal activities are best dealt with by the police who have powers to investigate and the CPS who can prosecute. Why should a regulator be expected to deal with such things? Did the GMC deal with Shipman? Does the Law Society jail crooked solicitors?

    Next we have the civil law. There are strong arguments here about access to justice for ordinary people. The system of arbitration that has been proposed may or may not deliver the things Mr Cathcart suggests, including cheaper resolutions for regional and local papers and even national papers. Until a system is in place it isn’t really possible to say what the outcome will be. Hacked Off make plenty of assertions here without much evidence. So do the publishers.

    Finally we have the Ralph Miliband question. Again there are strong arguments here about corrections and prominence and the ease and swiftness with which individuals can obtain them when they have no option to go to law. The way IPSO is being set up indicates the newspapers have taken these points seriously – and the fact that people like Mr Cathcart are not unpicking those parts of the Pressbof offering indicates that they believe this too. Perhaps they have done and I’ve just missed it in the froth.

    So why do something as intellectually dishonest as claiming that opponents of the Royal Charter want more media law, and to criminalise more elements of speech? Why claim that hacking, blagging, intrusion and fabrication are legally and morally equivalent? Two are illegal, and the others may be actionable or they may be legal, and intrusion is potentially justifiable. Is talk of putting more police in newsrooms some sort of veiled threat? If Mr Cathcart wants to make half-truths, exaggerations and fabrications a matter for the police, he would be in need of a lawyer himself.

    By the way, it would be nice if people who point continually to Finland as a paragon of press freedom actually asked why that is. A strong freedom of information act and government openness may have more to do with it than a statutory regulator with the power to fine. And perhaps someone should ask the Finns how well they are served by their news media and how often they hold the powerful to account.

  2. Andy J

    The problem with painting yourself into a corner as the majority of titles have done, is that when you realise your mistake you either have to wait for the paint to dry, or try to tiptoe out, leaving footmarks as evidence of your foolishness for all to see.

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