13 May 2013 – The idea of parliamentarians using an ancient device like a Royal Charter to provide recognition for any new press regulatory body set up by the publishing industry may have its charms, but it is a rather infantile response in an open parliamentary democracy where the public elect representatives to speak on their behalf.
For three major commercial companies – the Telegraph Group, Associated Newspapers and News International, the latter having been at the heart of the illegal activities which brought on the Leveson Inquiry – to now insist that their version of such a Charter should prevail is as hubristic as it is outrageous.
Of course, it now has the backing of Express Newspapers and Trinity Mirror and various industry associations, since the industry recognises that a united front may be its only way out of the impasse created by past misdemeanours. Yet even the recent ‘concession’ that the industry should not have the power to veto appointments to any new regulatory body is couched in weasel words. Now appointments will be achieved by ‘consensus’ rather than ‘qualified majority voting’ – even the lawyers would have problems with that one.
What has been at fault all along in the process of deciding how best to adopt Lord Justice Leveson’s most sensible recommendations has been the lack of public debate and consultation. Perhaps both government and publishers would like to get closure before the forensic details of past wrongdoings are unveiled in upcoming court cases, but there really is no need for undue haste.
Regional newspapers, whose reputations have survived more or less intact, are understandably upset at being ‘caught’ by the repercussions of wrongdoing by the nationals – and by news agencies which escaped largely unscathed by Leveson. They could have opened up the debate by organising public meetings, to discuss how best to proceed, with their readers – inviting both critics and defenders of the press onto the platform, and ensuring that local MPs were present. MPs themselves should be holding their own local consultations.
Rather than run deliberately misleading campaigns about the Leveson Report and its supporters the nationals could have shown some humility by acknowledging public disquiet about unlawful and ethical behaviour and offered editorial space to all shades of opinion. And the Press Complaints Commission could have won back some of its lost integrity by touring the country to test public opinion.
The broadcast media could have contributed to the public debate, using all the interactive devices at their disposal to examine the likely impact of Leveson’s proposals.
Instead we have had discussions behind closed doors – first among editors and proprietors, then between ministers and industry representatives, and finally between an all-party group and just one of the campaigners for regulatory change. It was an error of judgement for Hacked Off to be sucked into the late night meeting from which the first revised Royal Charter emerged. It gave the newspapers another stick with which to beat them, and sidelined everyone else.
That is why we are making public these comments which have been submitted to the Department of Culture Media and Sport as part of the consultation over the Press Barons’ Charter.
The solution favoured by MediaWise is a ‘future-proof’ all-media Ombudsman, supported by a broadly representative Media Advisory Panel, following the Irish model.
The Press Baron’s Charter reads like a recipe for PCC Mark II – the outcome we always anticipated. Real power remains in the hands of the commercial interests that run the industry – the Press Board of Finance which currently funds the PCC. Under the terms of the charter it will fund not only the new press regulator/s but also the Recognition Panel that guarantees its independence. PressBof will even populate the Panel and then appoint its members. Er – wasn’t this the key fault with the current structure?
‘PressBoF has a long and distinguished history of supporting the preservation and maintenance of Press standards and the adjudication of complaints from the public’, the Barons’ Charter insists, ignoring the consummate failures of the PCC which went unchallenged by its funders.
A belt and braces clause ensures that any changes to their Charter must be approved not just by the Recognition Panel but also by the Boards of any regulators and the Boards of all the press trade associations.
Any new Code of Conduct will be devised by serving editors, as now, but with some independent input. This does away with the possibility of working journalists taking part – long since a key MediaWise and NUJ demand and included in the original Royal Charter.
The ‘media literacy’ role which the PCC gradually developed, and acknowledged in the first Royal Charter, disappears in the Barons’ version, but a whistle-blowing hotline and the power to initiate its own investigations remain, along with powers to decide if, when and where corrections and apologies are to be run. MediaWise believes publications should flag up the regulator’s decisions on the front page with a link to a standard page on which corrections can be found, preferably on page 2.
They want the discretion to decide if and how ‘third party’ complaints will be heard, and an option rather than an obligation to offer an arbitration service – which might reduce the need for litigation.
In short, the industry’s version of the Charter offers ‘more of the same’, rather than a fresh approach to press regulation likely to find favour with the public. While not without its good points, the initial provenance of the Press Barons’ Charter is enough to ensure that any new regulator starting life under its purview will suffer the same credibility problems as the existing PCC.