The future for self regulation: An editor’s perspective
by Paul Dacre
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. Let me start by making it clear that I unequivocally condemn phone hacking and payments to the police. Such practices are a disgrace and have shocked and shamed us all. They need to be purged from journalism and reforms instigated to prevent such criminal activities ever happening again.
But let’s keep all this in proportion. Britain’s cities weren’t looted as a result. No-one died. The banks didn’t collapse because of the News of the World. Elected politicians continued to steal from the people they were paid to represent.
The nation didn’t go to war. Yet the response has been a judicial inquiry with greater powers than those possessed by the public inquiries into the Iraq war – an inquiry, incidentally, that includes a panel of experts who – while honourable distinguished people – don’t have the faintest clue how mass-selling newspapers operate.
Indeed, am I alone in detecting the rank smells of hypocrisy and revenge in the political class’s current moral indignation over a British press that dared to expose their greed and corruption – the same political class, incidentally, that, until a few weeks ago, had spent years indulging in sickening genuflection to the Murdoch press.
Which is why today, I’d like to try to persuade this inquiry that self-regulation – albeit in a considerably beefed up form – is, in a country that regards itself as truly democratic, the only viable way of policing a genuinely free press.
I’d also today like to persuade you that there are thousands of decent journalists in Britain who don’t hack phones, don’t bribe policemen and who work long anti-social hours for modest recompense – and if they’re in the regional press often for a pittance – because they passionately believe that their papers give voice to the voiceless and expose the misdeeds of the rich, the powerful and the pompous.
And in that context, I’d first like to explore several illuminating paradoxes in the current furore over the press.
Paradox number one is that the political class’s current obsession with clamping down on the press is contiguous with the depressing fact that the newspaper industry is in a sick financial state. Several of our quality papers are losing awesome amounts of money. More worrying, Britain’s proud provincial and local press – currently subject to closures, mergers and swingeing cuts – is arguably facing the severest challenges.
This diminishes our democracy. Courts go uncovered. Councils aren’t held to account. And the corrupt go unchallenged. That is a democratic deficit that in itself is worthy of an inquiry.
My second paradox is this growing clamour for more regulation ignores the uncomfortable truth that the Press is already on the very cusp of being over regulated. Indeed, over the past twenty years, restriction has been piled upon restriction.
The Data Protection Act means that reporters can be criminalised for such basic journalist practices as obtaining ex-directory numbers which they need to do to check stories are accurate.
The Human Rights Act is resulting in the creation of a privacy law by judges who seem to attach more weight to the right to privacy than to the right to freedom of expression. This is being compounded by the growth of injunctions and super-injunctions to prevent information being printed that is freely available on the internet.
Then we have the ruinous CFA system and its cynical partner “After The Event insurance” which means that virtually no newspaper can today afford to fight a court case that could end up costing many millions.
Meanwhile the Bribery Act – in which there’s no public interest defence – makes it illegal to pay a civil servant for information that could reveal corruption and, indeed, would have prevented The Telegraph from paying for the material confirming MPs’ fraud.
And finally, I believe that the PCC’s code, which has been rightly strengthened over the years, has blunted Sunday newspapers’ ability to secure the kind of sensational stories that were the bread and butter of their huge circulations in the past.
Today, we are in danger of ignoring the fact that news doesn’t grow on trees. News, let me remind you, is often something that someone – the rich, the powerful, the privileged – doesn’t want printed. Establishing the truth and accuracy of such news demands considerable resource and resourcefulness and is, frankly, becoming increasingly difficult.
My last paradox is that this demand for greater press regulation comes at a time when more and more of the information that people want to read is being provided by an utterly unregulated and arguably anarchic internet.
In an age of global communication, imposing rules on British print publications is not going to stop the spread of “celebrity tittle tattle”, which seems to upset some commentators so much. Web users can easily access sources for such information if they can’t get it from the printed press – and no regulator will be able to stop them. Indeed, it would be commercially ruinous to constrain British newspapers from publishing material that is freely available elsewhere.
I now come to the PCC and the myths that surround it.
And Myth One is that the conduct of the press has deteriorated over the years. Let me assure you the British press is vastly better behaved and disciplined than when I started in newspapers in the seventies. Then much of its behaviour was outrageous.
It was not uncommon for reporters to steal photographs from homes. Blatant subterfuge was commonly used. There were no restraints on invasions of privacy. Harassment was the rule rather than the exception.
The PCC has changed the very culture of Fleet Street. The editor’s code of conduct imbues every decision made by news desks and back benches. When a photograph is presented, the question is immediately asked: did the subject of the picture have a reasonable expectation of privacy? In stories, executives question whether the privacy of the person’s family or health is being invaded and whether their children are being protected. Were we harassing people? Was there a danger of, say, inciting copy-cat suicides? No, the newspaper industry is indisputably much better behaved than it was twenty years ago and to deny it is frankly churlish.
Myth Two is that the phone hacking scandal means that self-regulation doesn’t work. I think that’s very unfair. Yes, the PCC was naïve but its main mistake was failing to communicate the fact that phone hacking is blatantly illegal. It is against the law and no regulator can set itself above the law. The truth is the police should have investigated this crime properly and prosecuted the perpetrators. If phone hacking results in the abolition of the PCC, then logically it should result in the abolition of the police and the CPS. Should we end the jury system because of major miscarriages of justice?
And let’s quickly debunk the other myths: Editors sit in judgement on themselves: They don’t. They leave the room when any complaint against their paper or group is discussed. News International controls the PCC: In fact, NI has not had a member on the commission since 2007. Editors dominate the PCC: They don’t – they are in a minority of ten to seven and I tell you as one who sat on the commission for many years, editors were often far more critical of newspaper malpractice than the lay members. Editors regard adjudications as a slap on the wrist: They certainly don’t. They are genuine sanctions. I, and other editors, regard being obliged to publish an adjudication as a real act of shame.
OK, enough of being defensive. The truth is we are where we are. The perception is that the PCC is broken. It needs to be reformed if it is to regain trust, so may I make several suggestions.
Firstly, it is vital that the good work of the PCC, helping vulnerable people obtain protection and redress, without compromising freedom of expression, is not lost. Any reformed system of self-regulation will have to cover the current work of the PCC: dealing with complaints against the whole of the press and producing swift results, offering pre-publication advice to complainants; preventing possible harassment by journalists and broadcasters; giving guidance to editors to help with ethical dilemmas; training journalists; and using a body of case law that has set standards and understanding. It will have to do so without governmental interference. It will have to do so with the collaboration of the industry. It will have to do so in an online environment. It will have to do so efficiently in cost terms. Which is why I believe it would be disastrous for a commission to impose fines. If that were to happen, lawyers would inevitably be used by newspapers resulting in the end of quick and free PCC justice.
Secondly, while I abhor statutory controls, there’s one area where Parliament can help the press. Some way must be found to compel all newspaper owners to fund and participate in self-regulation.
God knows, the industry fought hard enough to prevent it, but the Express Group’s decision to leave the PCC was a body blow to the commission. How can you have self-regulation when a major newspaper group unilaterally withdraws from it?
But let’s not forget that it was the political class in the form of the Blair Government –in the risible belief that he’d turn the Express Labour – which decided that Richard Desmond, the businessman who’d made his money from porn, was a fit and proper person to own a newspaper. And it was OFCOM, itself a statutory regulator, which recently judged Mr Desmond a fit person to buy Channel 5 – this AFTER he’d quit the PCC, effectively holing self-regulation below the line.
Thirdly, I believe corrections must be given more prominence. As from next week, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and Metro will introduce a “Corrections and Clarifications” column on page two of these papers.
Fourthly, the Editors’ code Committee which, in fact, is already attended by the PCC’s Chairman and Director – both representing the commission’s lay members – should include some lay members actually on the committee. Indeed, I note with some pride, that the Editors’ code, which has changed forty times in the last twenty years, is rarely if ever criticised. We have nothing to fear and possibly much to gain from responsible lay participation in our deliberations and possibly some form of pubic consultation over changes to the code.
The number of lay members on the commission should, incidentally, not be increased. They form the largest lay majority of any Press Council in Europe. Lawyers sit in judgement on lawyers as do doctors on doctors. You need editors on the commission so that they can explain the practicalities of news gathering to the lay members. You also need them to buy into the system and learn from the concerns of those lay members.
And lastly I believe the time has come to debate the need for some kind of Newspaper Industry Ombudsman – possibly sitting in tandem with the commission – to deal specifically with press standards.
The commission should continue to do what it does well: resolve complaints, issue adjudications and impose the code.
An Ombudsman – possibly a retired judge or civil servant, and possibly advised by two retired editors from both ends of newspaper spectrum – could have the power to investigate, possibly with specialists co-opted onto his panel, potential press industry scandals.
The Ombudsman could also have the power to summon journalists and Editors to give evidence, to name offenders and, if necessary, – in the cases of the most extreme malfeasance – to impose fines. On the principle of “polluter pays” offending media groups could, within reason, be forced to carry the costs of any investigation affecting their newspapers.
Now I’m well aware that these proposals provoke thousands of questions – not least as to how such appointments are to be made – but I believe the debate over them should start now.
My greatest concern, however, – and it’s a very real one – is that any future reforms must take into consideration the needs and commercial realities of ALL newspapers, the provincial press, mass-selling red tops, as well as loss-making broadsheets.
Indeed, we should not be blind to the irony that the most virulent criticism of self-regulation comes from papers that lose eye watering amounts of money and which are subsidised either by trusts or Russian billionaires. I do not deprecate these papers. They are brilliant. But they are also, I would suggest, freed from the compulsion to connect with enough readers to be financially viable and the constraints of having to operate in the real world.
“Only connect” said E.M. Forster and in that real world, Britain’s free commercially viable mass selling newspapers have to use great skills to connect with their millions of readers.
They leaven their papers with sensation, exclusive pictures, scandal, celebrity gossip and dramatic human stories while still devoting considerable space to serious news, politics and campaigns that reflect their readers’ aspirations and anxieties.
In the coming weeks, I suspect we will hear much about those old chestnuts – the public interest and what interests the public. This inquiry will doubtless devote many hours to debating the almost terminal tension between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know.
My own view is that as long as the code is observed and no law is broken, papers should be free to publish what they believe is best for their markets.
And anyway, who should decide what interests the public – or where the public interest really lies? Judges? Politicians? Is that what Britain really wants.
The Mail, of course, which has more quality readers than The Times and Telegraph put together, has feet in both the broadsheet and tabloid camps.
The problem is Britain’s liberal class – the people who know best and who really run this country – by and large hate all the popular press. After all, the red tops can be vulgar, irreverent, outrageous and even malign. They also represent the views of millions of ordinary Britons. On the Euro and immigration, these papers scornfully reject the nostrums of the people who know best.
My worry is that this liberal hatred of mass selling papers has transmogrified into a hatred of self-regulation itself and I would ask the inquiry to be aware of this bias.
The Hampstead liberal with his gilded life-style understandably enjoys the Guardian – a paper that deals with serious issues. But does he or a judge have any right to deny someone who works ten hours a day in a Sunderland call centre and lives for football, the right to buy a paper that reveals the sexual peccadilloes of one of his team’s millionaire married players – a player who uses his celebrity to sell products to him and his children.
And at this point, it would be useful to deal with two canards about regulation.
The first is that independent regulation would be superior to self-regulation. The question, of course, is who choses these “independent” regulators … Who will guard the guards themselves?
Take OFCOM, the so-called independent media regulator. Its chief executive was a close Labour adviser who helped write the Party’s 2001 manifesto. Its first chairman – albeit a brilliant man – was a Labour party donor. And with an annual budget of £115 million – compared to the PCC’s £2 million budget – it receives millions of pounds in government support.
And the second canard is that other forms of media have superior regulatory systems.
But consider this. Terrestrial TV and radio, which have a legal obligation to be impartial, rely on an airwave spectrum which can be taken away by politicians. Satellite TV is effectively controlled by Rupert Murdoch. The BBC relies for its existence on a government imposed poll tax. And if any evidence is needed of how politicians can bully the BBC, look at the way Alistair Campbell assaulted the corporation after the death of David Kelly and the subsequent defenestration of the director general.
Indeed, I would argue that Britain’s commercially viable free press – because it is in hock to nobody – is the only really free media in this country. Over regulate that press and you put democracy itself in peril.
Don’t listen to me. Listen to the judges themselves.
I quote Lord Woolf in a 2002 appeal court judgment on a footballer’s dalliance with a lap dancer:
“The courts must not ignore the fact that if newspapers do not publish information which the public are interested in, then there will be fewer newspapers published, which will not be in the public interest.”
Or Baroness Hale in a 2004 Law Lords case:
“One reason why freedom of the press is so important is that we need newspapers to sell in order to ensure that we still have newspapers at all. It may be said that newspapers should be allowed considerable latitude in the intrusions into private grief so that they can maintain circulation and the rest of us can continue to enjoy the variety of newspapers and other mass media which are available in this country.”
And self-regulation, I would argue, is at the very heart of a free press. Which is why I profoundly regret that a Prime Minister – who had become too close to News International in general and Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade in particular – in a pretty cynical act of political expediency has prejudiced the outcome of this inquiry by declaring that the PCC, an institution he’d been committed to only a few weeks previously, was a “failed” body.
It is emphatically not. In a speech last week, Ray Snoddy, the FT’s brilliant one-time media commentator, put it perfectly:
“Save in one respect – dealing with illegal phone hacking – the PCC is not a failed organisation. It is one that has worked tirelessly to get fast, free redress for those who have been subject to inaccurate or intrusive reporting without reasonable cause and you can actually make a strong case that on the whole press behaviour has improved over the past 20 years.”
Over the past month, I have read calls by so-called academic experts for the licensing of journalists and the need for a regulator with supervisory powers over the press, to set and monitor standards and have the right – backed by the force of the law – to conduct spot checks on newspaper offices and seize equipment and evidence.
My own response to these experts is that they should emigrate to Zimbabwe.
Which brings me to the final myth about the PCC – the one that says that Britain is alone in having a press self-regulating system. Au contraire. There are no less than twenty nations in Europe with self-regulating systems – many based on the PCC. There are two exceptions however: France with its draconian privacy laws and pathetic torpid government subsidised press; and Italy which maintains the state licensing of journalists introduced by Mussolini.
No prizes for guessing which nation gave the world paparazzi photographers.
Paul Dacre is Editor of the Daily Mail.
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