Every ethical journalist must surely accept the principle that if the press is tough on wrongdoing in other walks of life – banks, energy companies, the police, social workers – then it must be at least equally tough on wrongdoing in its own ranks.
That is to say, when things go wrong the press should apply at least the same level of investigative energy, it should approach the evidence with at least the same rigour, and it should insist on at least the same levels of accountability. This is obvious not only because anything else would be hypocritical but also because in the absence of such scrutiny it is much easier for wrongdoing in the press to thrive.
Why is this principle relevant today? Because journalists and editors across almost the whole newspaper industry are currently turning a blind eye to a story that would undoubtedly be news if it emerged in any other industry.
The story is this: the self-regulation scheme put forward by the press industry chiefs in Pressbof (the Press Standards Board of Finance) has been subjected to close scrutiny and has been found to be deeply flawed. Indeed, it is being sold to the the public on a false prospectus.
Is this really news? Some journalists will no doubt shrug and say that nobody is really interested in press regulation and that it’s all too nitty-gritty to make a decent story for anyone but Press Gazette (which, to its credit, has indeed reported it). That is self-serving nonsense.
Of course it is news that national newspapers should cover. We have had a string of scandals about press misconduct, followed by a year-long public inquiry that commanded very widespread interest, followed by a year of public and political debate. This issue is both important and of interest to the public.
What is more the Pressbof scheme, which is called IPSO, has been the subject of a good deal of positive reporting across a broad range of national and regional newspapers, which have normally repeated without challenge its claim to implement the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson. If positive claims about IPSO are news then criticism of IPSO must be news too – indeed by the measures normally applied to other industries criticism would be bigger news.
The analysis by the Media Standards Trust (MST) found that IPSO would satisfy only 12 of the 38 relevant Leveson recommendations – even though IPSO’s advocates have claimed that it would deliver “all the key elements that Lord Justice Leveson called for in his report”.
IPSO would fail to meet Leveson standards on independence from the industry, on its complaints procedure, on access to justice, on investigatory powers, on sanctions and remedies, and on much more besides.
The implication is that IPSO would be another Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a body that would not remedy wrongdoing but could well aggravate it – remember that Leveson found that the PCC shielded the industry and put the interests of newspapers before ordinary people. The MST findings strongly suggest that IPSO is designed to do the same.
Despite this danger, the MST report has been almost completely ignored by editors and media correspondents across the national press since its publication last week. Only one commentator for the national press, the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, has reported it, and then only on his blog.
Successive press scandals from Motorman to McCann have either been ignored or buried on page 94. When the phone-hacking story broke, most national papers either ignored it or attacked the Guardian for reporting it. The Leveson Inquiry itself was reported in an astonishingly one-eyed fashion.
A few weeks ago, after the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Murdoch papers and others had indulged in an orgy of scaremongering about the Royal Charter on Press Self-Regulation, Hacked Off wrote to a number of editors suggesting that in the interest of balance they might consider publishing at least one item of comment from supporters of the charter.
After all, we pointed out, the charter implements the recommendations of a public inquiry, has been endorsed by all parties in Parliament and (as the polls show) commands the support of the overwhelming majority of readers of every national newspaper. Surely, we suggested, this was a view that newspapers ought to reflect.
The answers were revealing. The Mail, which had by then published many pages of invective against the charter, wrote back to say that it had discharged its duty of balance by publishing one short letter from Hacked Off. The Daily Telegraph simply replied: ‘No.‘ And the Times said it would think about it, and has done nothing.
These are papers which have been trying to assert, incorrectly, that the charter is a threat to free speech. Yet they exercise self-interested selection when it comes to the freedom to speak through their comment pages.
This is an abuse of the power of the press. It shows that these managements fear contrary opinions and realise they cannot contend with them fairly. It shows that they aim to persuade readers of the merits of IPSO by concealing from them the evidence that it is faulty. It undermines their own case for IPSO by demonstrating that they are unable to and unfit to judge themselves.
And it proves that, while they are happy to dish out tough coverage and criticism to MPs, bankers, hospital staff, trade unionists and the police, they will not tolerate tough coverage and criticism of themselves.
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director of Hacked Off. This piece first appeared as a Guest Blog for Press Gazette and is reproduced with their kind permission.