by Brian Cathcart
What do proprietors and editors want? Behind the bluster about press freedom and the hare-brained conspiracy theories about Leveson, what are they really after? The answer, at least in some of the most prominent cases, is that they want power – the power to operate without being accountable, the power to make up their own rules and ignore them when they wish, the power to ride roughshod over people with impunity.
For 60 years they have exercised this power behind the screen of self-regulation, which first took the form of the Press Council and then became the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Now they want us to accept a new screen: the Hunt-Black plan.
It takes its name from Lord Hunt, a former minister and now chair of the PCC, who first proposed it, and from Lord (Guy) Black, a bigwig at the Telegraph group who heads the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof), which funds and oversees the PCC. Somewhere along the way the plan became more Lord Black’s than Lord Hunt’s.
Before looking at what the plan suggests it’s worth reminding ourselves of its status. First, it was a submission to the Leveson inquiry, which is to say that it was among a dozen proposals for regulatory systems put to the judge for him to consider in preparing his recommendations. Both peers appeared in person twice to make their case.
Second, it is the plan of the people who lead the industry that was effectively in the dock. The Leveson inquiry has been a year-long investigation of the press, created amid a widespread feeling that the press had disgraced itself and that the PCC, which was supposed to uphold standards and give redress to the public, was a failure. So the Hunt-Black plan can be described as what the defendant thinks his own sentence should be.
Of course the press would like us to think of Hunt-Black in a quite different way: as a rival to the proposals to be put forward on Thursday by Lord Justice Leveson. The editors and Lord Black want us, and more importantly want David Cameron, to picture these as alternative solutions to the thorny problem of the press. They may even be encouraging the idea that some compromise between the two is what is needed.
This isn’t right, for there is no equivalence between the plans: one of them a submission to the inquiry (among many) from an interested party and the other the considered final report of that inquiry. Nor is there any moral equivalence between the judge, who is is acting formally and legally at the behest of parliament, and Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, the Barclay brothers and the others who dominate PressBof.
So, after 60 years of failure for self-regulation, what did Lords Hunt and Black come up with in the attempt to persuade Lord Justice Leveson to endorse yet another round of self-regulation? Binding contracts, million-pound fines, independent leadership, investigatory powers – it certainly sounds impressive.
But it isn’t. Like every previous press self-regulation system going back to the General Council of the Press in 1953, the Hunt-Black plan seems to be designed to appear significant and powerful while in fact it is nothing of the kind. It was taken apart at the inquiry and has been dissected in detail by the Media Standards Trust. Let’s look at the principal problems.
The industry retains a veto over appointments to the leadership of the new body, and more significantly the real power remains not with those leaders but with the Industry Finance Body (IFB), which holds the purse-strings and is made up entirely of industry chiefs. The almost-identical successor to PressBoF, IFB retains wide-ranging authority over the regulator, controlling such matters as the regulations of the body, the sanctions on members, the key appointments and the pay of directors.
Publishers of newspapers are bound into the new body in a new way, by five-year contracts. While this may sound impressive, contracts are always voluntary and temporary. So there is no guarantee that all significant publishers will join, and no guarantee that they will stay in after five years. Indeed the contracts themselves are likely to be renegotiated at the end of five years – and how likely is it that they will voluntarily be made tougher? Moreover the key players in the industry are notoriously fractious and litigious, and if disputes develop the legal implications could hamstring the regulator.
Investigations and sanctions
The funding and structure of the investigative arm of the new body is so feeble as to make it unworkable. An ad hoc staff is supported by an ad hoc fund of £100,000, and the threshold for initiating an investigation is left vague. Remember, the PCC almost never investigated any failures, however grave or widespread they were. That fund of £100,000 would disappear very rapidly if a paper decided to deploy lawyers to resist an investigation. And as for fining a paper if an investigation actually took place and found serious fault, how that would happen is worryingly unclear. Again the chance of a paralysing legal challenge is high.
The proposal is to entice papers to join the new voluntary regulator partly by giving members exclusive access to key press cards issued by for example Parliament, the football authorities and the police. This way only journalists who are approved by the editors of member organisations could deal with and report on these bodies. This would be licensing journalists, a far more restrictive innovation in the industry than any other proposed to the Leveson inquiry. Freelances and newcomers would be excluded.
In short, therefore, the Hunt-Black proposal is for a body that is not independent, has a five-year sell-by date (if it lasts that long), has feeble powers of investigation and sanction and actually undermines the freedom of journalists. Crucially, from the point of view of the industry leadership, it leaves editors and proprietors answerable to no one but themselves. And this is the very best the industry has to offer now, in 2012, in the midst of its worst ever crisis of credibility.
You have to admire their chutzpah, but then again they have no experience of failing to get their own way. At least four times since 1949 they have been challenged, and every time they have managed to avoid being made accountable. They have had more last chances than Frank Sinatra had farewell concerts.
And their chutzpah does not end there, for Lords Black and Hunt are now constantly puffing the extent of the support they have gathered. The plan is nothing at all unless the big paper groups all formally commit to it, but despite suggestions to that effect from the two peers that does not seem to have happened. This article in the Guardian suggests that there is considerable tension and even disagreement between the national papers.
Brian Cathcart is director at Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.