By Brian Cathcart
The departure of Paul Vickers from Trinity Mirror is an important development for the press industry, though characteristically the big newspaper groups have chosen not to share the implications with their readers.
As the company’s secretary and group legal director Vickers was responsible for the Mirror papers’ response to the phone hacking scandal, and that has turned into a disaster.
Vickers also did the donkey work in setting up IPSO, the new sham self-regulator that replaced the old sham self-regulator, the PCC, and his reward was to chair the Regulatory Finance Company, the shadowy committee of press executives who pull IPSO’s strings.
All of that has turned out badly too. IPSO, launched in September, is already widely recognised as another toothless poodle that will put the industry’s interests before the public’s. Even its own chair admits, for example, that its vaunted power to impose £1m fines is a fiction.
Meanwhile Vickers was hardly in his seat at the RFC before the Sunday Mirror disgraced itself over the Brooks Newmark affair , buying and publishing a story so obviously in breach of the code of practice that even The Sun had turned it down.
To many, however, Vickers’s most striking achievement was connected with the hacking scandal. He was the man who in 2011 conducted the ‘Review of editorial controls and standards’ which served for so long as the company’s fig-leaf.
Incredibly, this amounted to little more than writing to 43 senior journalists in the group asking whether they or their subordinates had hacked phones. And when they all said no, that was good enough for Vickers. It was also good enough for the rest of the Trinity Mirror management, who encouraged both shareholders and the public to believe the company had clean hands.
Roy Greenslade of the Guardian has written about this here.
In recent months the edifice of bland confidence at Trinity Mirror has collapsed. In the criminal courts two journalists have pleaded guilty to hacking for Mirror titles and they have implicated others, while in the civil courts the company has been obliged to confess to hacking – two years after the first claims were made – and to offer to compensate those who have made claims. There is certainly more to come.
Trinity Mirror now says it has decided to dispense with Vickers’s services ‘as part of a wider management restructure’.
But this is not just a company matter. What does it say about IPSO that the man presented to the public as its principal architect is departing in such circumstances? And what does it say about the RFC that its first chair was the senior legal executive at a company that hacked phones, and that he remained in post at that company for years while it consistently dismissed allegations of hacking as unsubstantiated?
No one is suggesting that Vickers himself broke the law in any way, but he has a long list of questions to answer about what efforts the company made in the years he was legal director to establish the truth about hacking, to find the wrongdoers and to ensure that the full truth came out.
The fate of Vickers also draws attention to something the big press companies would rather nobody scrutinised: the shifty and clubbish procedures of the RFC. This body’s powers over the allegedly independent IPSO are remarkable: it holds the purse strings; it has control of the Articles of Association and regulations; it owns the code of practice; it influences appointments.
And voting power at the RFC is held overwhelmingly by the big companies, so that between them the Murdoch papers, the Mail and the Telegraph wield a comfortable majority. In all important matters relating to IPSO, what they say goes.
By what independent, transparent and meritocratic procedure was Vickers chosen to head this important body? We don’t know, except that it involved a consensus of his industry chums and no reference to anyone else. By what procedure will his successor be chosen? Without a doubt, the same one.