We need more transparency and accountability from the press (and as for reforming the PCC – what’s wrong with the Irish model?)

11 October 2013 – The MediaWise Trust has sent all Westminster MPs a copy of How fragile is media credibility? the final report of a 14-nation academic study of Media Accountability and Transparency in Europe and the Arab World which coincided with the Leveson Inquiry. Our hope is that its findings will help them resolve the current debacle over reform of press regulation. We urge them to opt for the tried and tested Irish model – which UK publishers already accept for their Irish editions – while calling for publishers to voluntarily open up about their editorial and employment policies, their business interests and how their complaints and corrections procedures work.

MediaWise began life as PressWise in 1993 after the failure of then Labour MP Clive Soley’s attempt to establish an Independent Press Authority to defend press freedom and adjudicate on complaints. This was soon after Sir David Calcutt’s second report concluded that the Press Complaints Commission was not fit for purpose. Since then we have been providing discreet, free, professional advice and support to members of the public with complaints about print or broadcast journalism.

We have supplied evidence of press misbehaviour and the PCC’s failings to successive parliamentary committees. We contributed to Lord Justice Leveson’s opening seminars and gave evidence to his inquiry (see here and here).

We have long argued for reform of the PCC. It has never been regarded as sufficiently independent of its paymasters, and has always tended to side with the editors, persuading unwary complainants to accept ‘resolutions’ that do not properly answer their complaints. Sometimes, prevarication by editors drags out the process in the hope that complainants will give up or give in. An excellent current example is my own complaint about the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and The Drum over an utterly inaccurate and hostile article that originally appeared in April 2013. It was one of a series devoted to undermining the credibility of supporters of the Leveson recommendations by deliberately misrepresenting them as proponents of state control of the press. Six months on and the matter is still not resolved.

Working journalists and members of the public have come to distrust ‘self regulation’ in its present form. The reincarnation of the PCC as the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) will still be perceived as a mere stratagem to protect business interests from state interference.

As the MediaAcT survey of almost 2,000 journalists revealed, the majority ARE concerned about ethics. They blame commercial pressures for falling ethical standards, and look to their own consciences rather than editors or regulators for guidance. They value their credibility and see their primary responsibility as being to the public and their sources. Journalists regard responsible behaviour as a prerequisite for press freedom, a responsibility they exercise on behalf of the public.

Editors, or perhaps more exactly their owners, see tougher regulation as a constraint upon their commercial ambitions. They denounce their critics as enemies of press freedom when for them it is a licence to make money. It is difficult for the public to know when their business interests have clouded their editorial judgements. One classic case was the Express proprietor’s decision to run front pages critical of asylum-seekers and gypsies in order to increase sales. It was his journalists who complained to the PCC, and demanded a conscience clause to prevent their work being corrupted. The PCC dismissed their complaints and the Society of Editors rejected the notion that journalists should think for themselves. Small wonder that working journalists are to be excluded from IPSO, as they have been from the PCC.

Reverting to the use of a Royal Charter to guarantee the independence of any new regulatory system is not only anachronistic but defeats its own purpose since Privy Councillors (senior politicians) can change its terms almost at will. We need a simpler and more pragmatic model.

As the MediaAcT Project demonstrates, the internet opens up many new opportunities for accountability and transparency. It makes it much easier for publishing companies to explain their policies, their financial and business affairs and their news-gathering techniques, as well as their employment practices and complaints and correction procedures. There is nothing to stop politicians urging them to do so. Being open about these things should be second nature to the Fourth Estate since it is supposed to be a watchdog for the public interest, holding the powerful to account.

Yet the Fourth Estate has become an extremely powerful force with commercial and political interests extending way beyond its publications, holding politicians of every hue in its thrall and attacking any who challenge it. How is it to be held to account?

In our long experience we have yet to come across a complainant who wanted to curtail the freedom of the press. They value the role of the press, but just want them to behave responsibly. British media companies happily operate in Ireland under an independent Press Ombudsman and Press Council, a system in which working journalists play a part alongside industry representatives and members of the public. So why not here? As with the Leveson proposals, compliance brings with it protection from punitive damages in legal actions.

And instead of an expensive arbitration system why not fund an independent, free advocacy service – a function we have fulfilled or 20 years – so that complainants have support when taking on those whom they feel have done them wrong. Like us it need have no axe to grind, merely a belief in the importance of ethical journalism. Indeed, we advise at least 50% of those who have come to us that they have no grounds for complaint, improving their media literacy in the process.

As we move closer to the next General Election there is a real risk that once again the political will for change will come under pressure from those who claim to represent freedom of the press but who do not truly represent the public interest. During this period of ‘the great rethink’ about independent regulation of the press, we would urge all MPs and media reform campaigners to consider the Irish model in the public interest, and continue to lobby for a conscience clause in every journalist’s contact.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise Trust

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