Tag Archives: journalism

Press Regulation Post-Leveson

I went to a debate at the RSA on press regulation after Leveson. A bit premature, as all three speakers agreed, but some crystal ball gazing can be fun.

Chaired by John Lloyd, Hugh Tomlinson and Guy Black talked through theirs’ and others’ views – all three were interested parties and active in the media. (Just to be clear, that’s an editor at the FT, a QC and life peer… Hardly non-establishment, then.)

Guy Black spoke first. He had been a director of the Press Complaints Commission until 2004, and clearly felt the PCC had achieved a lot – despite the criticism levelled at it through the Leveson Inquiry so far. He strongly believed that self-regulation without the force of statute was important, primarily because any involvement of Parliament would threaten the independence of any post-Leveson press regulatory body. He sees the ability of the press to hold those in power to account to be crucial, citing the Telegraph’s investigation of MPs’ expenses as an example. (Notwithstanding that it appears to have been Heather Brooke who really broke the story after a painstaking investigation based on freedom of information requests and the Telegraph only got it because they could pay more for the information that was leaked.)

His proposal was a for a self-regulatory body with teeth, enforceable through civil contracts [PDF]. It would have two functions – complaints and compliance – so it could investigate and hold newsrooms to account. Contracts would allow it to levy significant fines.

By using contracts, Black felt that it could be future-proofed – changes would be easy. It would be open to digital as well as analogue publishers (though I am not sure how it would regulate blogs – such as this one; I can see that websites like Huffington Post might be enticed to sign up, but it is hard to envisage common-or-garden bloggers being interested. Regulation of digital media may remain a stumbling block).

Tomlinson came from a very different perspective: he believed the PPC wasn’t responsible for regulation, and hence there had been no self-regulation; and self-regulation would not work. Reporting from a media committee (on which Lloyd sat, too) which had published its recommendations in February [PDF], Tomlinson asserted that regulation would require statute, which could be drawn up to ensure independence from politicians. The statute would only define the powers for the new body (Tomlison even had a name for it – the Media Standards Authority, or MSA).

The MSA would be able to award compensation (which the PCC cannot do, apparently – hence those who feel they have been wrong by the press resort to the courts rather than the PCC) and would be able to discipline members (and presumably enforce any punishment).

Fundamentally, Tomlinson felt some body such as the MSA would need to overturn the old newsroom culture, which had allowed behaviour such as that discussed by witnesses to Leveson to spread.

There were interesting similarities between the two ideas – and I think they were closer than the two protagonists would say. Neither wanted compulsion – both were essentially voluntary schemes (albeit with sanctions and incentives to ensure publishers engage with their schemes). Both relied on contracts to enforce regulation. Both envisage some form of compliance instead of just complaint resolution.

For me, the big question was why no compulsion and why no statutory enforcement? In essence why the MSA rather than OfPress? The answer from both Tomlinson and Black was that to compel publishers to join and have strict OfCom-like regulation, one needed a form of licensing which could be removed: with broadcasters, regulated by OfCom, the sanction for non-compliance is the removal of access to specific channels in the spectrum.

Newspapers are not licensed: there is nothing that OfMed could take away. This is probably a good thing – issuing licences to publish would be riven with difficulties, not least political interference. So a regulator needs to work in a different – and, apparently – voluntary fashion.

The risk of course is that such a regulator lacks teeth.

The questions raised afterwards were interesting, although not necessarily resolved. Were the failures of the press that prompted the establishment of Leveson a failure of regulation or of enforcement? As Ian Hislop pointed out in his submission to Leveson, the behaviour of the press – phone hacking and so on – was illegal, but the police failed to investigate – to enforce the existing law. Sufficient legal powers existed to punish journalists who transgressed the law.

Something that came up again and again was that a change in behaviour – in the newsroom culture – was needed. The press felt and acted above the law. One difficulty is that there are times when it may be advantageous for the press to behave like this. The investigation of MPs’ expenses, for instance, required journalists to break the law to obtain damning information – the details published by the Daily Telegraph were illegally obtained. How can one form of illegal behaviour be condoned whilst another attracts sanction?

The public interest is not, of course, what the public are interested in…

There was a discussion about how the press works in the USA. There is apparently no formal press regulation in America: the US constitution provides certain rights and the press adheres to the first amendment, which includes a right to reply. The speakers believed the US press has higher professionalism than their British colleagues, and a greater pride in their work – both of which are reflected in a different newsroom culture. Many newspapers are local monopolies, reflecting individual cities and providing local news – and being family owned meant that the owners felt responsible for what was printed. (I didn’t buy this at all: local monopolies and restricted ownership sound like a situation ripe for abuse.) Of course, News Corporation – the owner of two newspapers at the heart of Leveson – appears to be run as if it were a family owned enterprise (that family being Rupert Murdoch‘s): their ethics haven’t been helped by keeping it in the family.

There was also discussion of the concentration of media and press power in a few hands – and again Murdoch was invoked. Neither of the models of regulation sought to address press power, just abuses of it.

We’ll have to wait to see what Leveson does actually recommend…

“Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?”

Few weeks ago I heard Louis Blom-Cooper give a talk entitled “Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?” I was reminded of this by the ongoing (and frankly surreal testimony from the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. Blom-Cooper was chair of the Press Council, the forerunner to the Press Complaints Commission.

He didn’t really answer his own question: instead, this was a kicking off point for a discussion about the press and society – and which feeds which.

The fourth estate – which Blom-Cooper said Fielding originally applied to “the mob”, and only later became attached to the press by Carlyle – demonstrated power without responsibility; but whilst irresponsible, they were not too irresponsible. (Milly Dowler’s parents and the McCanns, together with more celebrated witness to Leveson, may disagree.)

He discussed the problem of regulating the press in the age of electronic media. Broadcasters are regulated by OfCom; the press by the PCC (regarded by many as toothless); the internet not at all. Perhaps, Blom-Cooper suggested, a single media regulator was needed. (It wasn’t clear that Blom-Cooper fully understood new media such as blogs, let alone Twitter, and how these interact with more traditional media.)

For Blom-Cooper, it wasn’t news-gathering and reporters apparently errant methods, but publication that was the real issue: breach of privacy, he felt, came with publication. I think he is wrong on this: in phone-hacking (albeit an extreme example), the breach of privacy surely came with the intrusion? Blom-Cooper’s point was that it was papers’ editors who were responsible, not reporters, and editors who needed a code of ethics – and to manage their reporters. (Paul McMullan’s claim that editors at News of the World knew that voicemails were being intercepted puts a different light on this: clearly they were responsible, and didn’t act.) For Blom-Cooper, what isn’t reported – the information and knowledge that the press “sit on” and withhold – is as important as what is.

He expressed the view that “journalism is the best medicine for the truth” – that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, perhaps: a free press is needed within society to hold others – those with power – to account. Knowledge that wrong-doing may become public leads to self-censorship of action. (This again leaves press “stings” like those carried out by the “fake sheikh”, including those that are clearly designed to expose wrong-doing like corruption in sport in a hard-to-justify swamp.)

The difficulty with the PCC is that it can only act after the event – the Press Complaints Commission needs a complaint to act. A code of conduct would be better than statutory regulation, he thought, but clearly it would need to have teeth. A widespread change in the culture of the press – its ethics, perhaps – would also be needed for editors to comply with a code of conduct.

With the development of electronic media and the internet, the fourth estate is returning to the mob: anyone can become a citizen-journalist and, despite the concentration of media in few hands (and, Blom-Cooper pointed out, this concentration is not new – Murdoch and Desmond today were more than matched by Beaverbrook and Rothermere, thought little of flexing their power to influence governments), anyone can now become a publisher, too. The role of the press in a civil society requires the freedom criticise society – but also the freedom to criticise the press. Educating readers into the ways of the press may be as important as educating the press itself – its editors and reporters.

I think the exposure – the disinfectant of sunlight – press methods have received in the Leveson inquiry is probably a good start.