Anyone reading last week’s newspaper editorials in newspapers such as the Mail or the Telegraph will know that our press is anxious. This week, the independent Press Recognition Panel – established by Parliament as part of the post-Leveson framework – is meeting to decide whether to confer recognition status on Impress, a self-regulator established in order to meet the Charter criteria for genuinely effective and independent self-regulation.
Judging by the hundreds of column centimetres devoted to fulminating outrage about the end of 300 years of press freedom, editors fully expect Impress to be recognised. Further steps are needed to complete the self-regulation framework agreed by Parliament – in particular the incentive scheme relating to court costs in civil cases which still has to be implemented by the Culture Secretary – but this will be a vital and historic step forwards after decades of bitter industry resistance to meaningful reform.
Last week’s collective hysteria was entirely predictable and followed equally frenzied tirades in the aftermath of Parliament’s acceptance of Leveson’s recommendations.
Rather less predictable was an intervention by Sir Alan Moses, inaugural chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which was established by the industry as their two fingers to Parliament and the Leveson framework. IPSO, we should remember, was acclaimed by the press as “the toughest regulator in the Western world” which would vigorously safeguard ethical standards of journalism and ensure that – finally – the press was genuinely accountable for breaches of its own code.
So what was the first chairman of IPSO’s message to the industry he was purporting to regulate? It was this: “You should be wary, very wary, very wary indeed of anything that looks like an attempt to corral you into submission. Government, the powers that be, want to goad you, prod you like sheep into doing what they want.” And he continued: “The essence of successful regulation I believe is that it is voluntary. It’s something that you choose to do, not something into which you are driven.”
That was not the sound of someone preparing to get tough on an industry which breaches its own standards with impunity. It was a message that might have come straight from a Mail, Sun or Telegraph editorial. More than anything, it was the final confirmation that IPSO and its leaders have gone the same way as the Press Complaints Commission which preceded it – swallowed up by its paymasters and unable to distinguish effective regulation from industry backslapping.
That history is repeating itself is abundantly clear from Sir Brian Leveson’s brief historical assessment of the PCC. He detailed what he called “the self-association and alignment of the PCC with the interests of the industry rather those who were the victims of mistreatment by the press” which sometimes led to its acting as “an unabashed advocate or lobbyist for the press industry”.
The evidence was unequivocal. Under its second chairman, Lord Wakeham, the PCC lobbied for the press to be exempt from Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the right to respect for private life. Having failed in that respect, Wakeham negotiated with the Home Secretary Jack Straw to add a new section 12 to the Human Rights Act 1998 designed to tip the balance of power towards the press in any trade-off between privacy and free speech.
Similarly vigorous lobbying under Wakeham’s successor, Sir Christopher Meyer, was targeted at amendments to the 1998 Data Protection Act, this time arguing against custodial sentences for breaches of section 55. Since this section related to unlawful procurement of personal data, and in light of a report by the Information Commissioner [pdf] that theft of confidential data by journalists was taking place on an industrial scale, it was hardly a regulatory priority to restrict penalties for offenders. As Leveson commented:
“Little consideration appears to have been given to those who might be the subject of intrusive breaches of data protection at the hands of the press…. Yet it is the complaints of those people which the PCC exists to mediate or resolve.”
In 2005, the PCC coordinated its lobbying efforts in Europe to fend off a proposed clause in the Television Without Frontiers directive which was considering a statutory right of reply to press inaccuracies.
It should be no surprise, then, that Leveson concluded: “At times, it seems that the PCC acted as both advocate and champion for this industry, a role that it rarely adopted in relation to those who had been wronged by the press.” It was impossible to justify such close collaboration: it was not as if the industry itself was short of resources, advocates or platforms.
And as the PCC aligned itself unashamedly with the interests of those it was purporting to “regulate”, it constantly manoeuvred to reassure critics that it was becoming tougher, more rigorous and more independent.
Thus, following a highly critical second report from Sir David Calcutt in 1993, the PCC’s first chairman Lord McGregor and then Wakeham sought to assure Parliament that real changes were being implemented through a series of largely meaningless reforms. Several years later, Meyer announced another programme of reform couched in terms of “permanent evolution”. Then his successor, Lady Buscombe, launched an Independent Governance Review which reported in 2010 [pdf].
None of these measures, from McGregor to Buscombe, amounted to a row of beans in terms of serious systemic change in securing effective and independent self-regulation – but each one was designed to give an impression of meaningful regulatory activity on behalf of the public.
In Leveson’s words,
“limited programmes of reform have been concerned with relieving pressure on the press, and blunting calls for strengthening the self-regulatory system. A show of reform has been used as a substitute for the reality of it.”
Without pausing for breath, IPSO has seamlessly continued Leveson’s “pattern of cosmetic reform”. There has been precisely one meaningful concession in the two years since IPSO was established with a rule book which bound it hand and foot: a five year funding settlement. Apart from that, the industry’s ability to veto appointments, its stranglehold over investigations and sanctions procedures, its superficial and wholly ineffectual approach to low-cost arbitration, and ultimately its manifest inability to ensure that editors abide by their own Code of Conduct, have rendered it as impotent as its predecessor.
When Sir Alan Moses agreed to become the first chair of IPSO, some critics (myself included) harboured a little hope. Here was someone of manifest intelligence who surely understood the decades of brutal, untrammelled power exercised by Britain’s national press and their determination to trample – yet again – on any attempt to avoid proper accountability for egregious abuses of that power. He would, surely, recognise the strength of his position and demand – with threats of resignation if necessary – the kinds of reforms that might just command public confidence and so help to restore faith in journalism.
It was not to be, but perhaps Sir Alan has done us a favour. He has demonstrated unequivocally that IPSO’s interests are indistinguishable from those of the industry and that – just like the PCC and its procession of industry-hugging chairmen – any protestations and cosmetic rule changes to the contrary are nothing but fig-leaves of independence.
If and when Impress is recognised this week, we should all be thankful that perhaps – at last – we will be getting a genuine antidote to decades of deception and inertia.
Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. @stevenjbarnett