Lord Hunt’s proposal: the last chance saloon again
by Brian Cathcart
Lord Hunt says he is winding up the Press Complaints Commission, of which he is chairman, and will launch a new body “with teeth”. He has discussed this planned body at the Leveson inquiry and elsewhere, and his ideas have at least four significant weaknesses.
The first weakness
The new body will be voluntary. Members will be bound by contract, but to get that far they must actually sign their contracts. Lord Hunt has no way of compelling them. The contracts will also be rolling, five-year ones; he has no way of preventing members from deciding to let their contracts run out. Here is what he told the Leveson inquiry on 31 January:
“If someone just unilaterally withdrew, for whatever reason, a five-year period would be more than enough time to provide the statutory underpinning that would be necessary if you could never achieve consensus…”
As Lord Justice Leveson pointed out, this is where we started – the last chance saloon. The press is told: behave or we legislate. That threat has been waved around since 1949 and it has never done its job.
Here and now in 2012, in the shadow of successive press scandals, we have the momentum to do something that makes a lasting difference, something more effective than renewing the leases in the last chance saloon and ensuring that large-scale press abuse can sneak back when the heat is off. It is, in my view, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and five years down the line there will not be comparable political or public determination.
The press industry knows this, because it is precisely the trick that it played in 1990, when the papers were last in this sort of disgrace. They agreed to a couple of years on probation but when, after that period had passed, they were found to have lapsed into their bad old ways, the political will to act had evaporated. They got away with it, with the result that we are in an even worse mess now.
The second weakness
There is a problem of provenance. Lord Hunt himself is no doubt acting in good faith and with the best of intentions, but as chair of the PCC he is, like his predecessors, the creature of the industry and whether he likes it or not his proposals are tainted by that.
His authority to speak and act derives from editors and proprietors in the national press, and to put it bluntly nobody trusts these people any more. These are the same people, with very few exceptions, who told us for 20 years that the PCC was a much-feared, effective and entirely satisfactory regulator, a position that not one of them would defend today. Many of these people also own or run newspapers that participated in something resembling a conspiracy of silence about phone hacking.
It is certainly the case that, since they are important figures in the industry, their voices need to be heard and taken very seriously. But to acknowledge that is a long way from saying that they are the right people to design their own regulation.
And if Lord Hunt argues, as he may, that he does not speak for them and is perfectly independent of them, then he is just another person with an opinion.
The third weakness
Another, better process for designing a new regulatory system is already at work. It is called the Leveson inquiry.
Editors and proprietors have been and can be heard there, and so can others with a stake in these issues. Because it is a public process, we can have some confidence that the gravity of the problem exposed is genuinely understood and acknowledged by the inquiry, whereas it is clear that the industry itself has not got that far.
Lord Justice Leveson often refers to the history of the problem, something editors and proprietors would clearly prefer we all forgot. He told Lord Hunt:
“It is rather disturbing the number of times since the last war that we’ve been in a position of great calamity for the press, there has been an inquiry, everybody agrees something must happen that is different, that is taken on board… then disaster happens and everybody starts again.”
Lord Hunt is entitled to his ideas and so are the editors and proprietors. The right place to air them is before Lord Justice Leveson, who has been charged by the government, in the name of the public, to come up with a new plan for regulation.
Lord Hunt says that the judge has encouraged him to keep working. There is truth in this. Here is what Lord Justice Leveson said:
“If the industry is taking advantage of the time that the Inquiry takes to address these concerns, nobody will be more pleased than I will be to be able to feel progress has been made and that a solution has been reached which can be embraced by the industry rather than fought over for the next five years to come. But it does have to cope with the problems, because those organisations and people who’ve spoken about those problems have a legitimate interest in ensuring that they haven’t gone through the pain of exposing themselves only to find that nothing really has changed.”
There is a significant caveat there – that reference to coping with the problems must, on any reading, include the problem of the last chance saloon. The judge made that clear. Lord Hunt’s idea does not “cope with” that problem; it fudges it again.
There is also a risk that, if he proceeds with his plan, he will create a fait accompli that allows the industry to avoid serious change. A new body will exist, backed by editors and proprietors who will naturally be screaming its supposed virtues from the rooftops, and we will be told it is unnecessary or unjust to pick it apart because of some minor concerns expressed by Lord Justice Leveson.
Again, for the students of history, this has happened before, when Sir David Calcutt reviewed the performance of the PCC in 1993 and found it wanting, the press industry was able to brush off his criticisms. The new PCC had possession of the regulatory territory and could not be shifted.
The fourth weakness
Lord Hunt relies, like so many people in the industry that now employs him, on the bogey-man of state control. If any form of Bill connected with the press comes before Parliament, he argues, it will automatically be turned by MPs and peers into a censor’s charter, with measures to dictate the content and form of news and comment in the press.
He has made this argument before Lord Justice Leveson, who treated it with obvious scepticism, and he has made it elsewhere. The evidence for this threat is, to say the least, thin. All three party leaders have publicly ruled out any form of statute which impinges on freedom of expression, though they are not against a statute facilitating effective independent regulation. The Commons media committee and the Lords communications committee both take the same view.
Indeed no figure of any significance in either house of Parliament has suggested legislation which would give politicians influence over newspaper content, so if there is a significant political lobby in favour of this it must be a secret one. If Lord Hunt knows who its members are he should name them. If he can’t do that he should stop using this argument.
Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart