One of the most widely-recognised failings of the old Press Complaints Commission was its inability to mount effective investigations when things went wrong in the press. This wasn’t accidental, as the Leveson Report showed (pp1561-76), but was designed into the system by press bosses.
Yesterday proprietors and editors unveiled their latest plan for a new-model PCC, called the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and they clearly want to perform the same trick again. So many procedural barriers are placed in the way of investigators that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for the regulator to call a major paper to account.
This means in turn that the vaunted million-pound fines for errant papers would almost certainly never happen, because no fine could be imposed without a successful prior investigation.
Below is a summary of the investigative process they proposed yesterday (pp39-65). You will see that there are no fewer than seven opportunities for a newspaper that is under investigation to respond to, challenge, appeal and drag out the process. (By contrast, there is not a single opportunity for members of the public to have a say.)
We know from the experience of the PCC how adept big national newspapers are at ‘gaming’ such systems, and how ready they are to deploy lawyers in their defence. A system such as this would be a playground for them, and an investigator could count on being bogged down until the task became virtually impossible.
As Leveson made clear (p1766), an effective investigative process needs to be simple and credible, enabling the self-regulator to take swift, firm action to find the facts and explanations, whether a newspaper likes what is happening or not. That is plainly the last thing that the Murdoch papers, the Mail and the Telegraph want.
Summary of steps in an investigation
(the opportunities for publisher intervention are numbered in brackets)
- Regulator decides that an investigation should take place (where there is already evidence of serious failure)
- Regulator decides on remit and writes to publisher explaining why investigation happening
- Publisher has 14 days to respond (1)
- Regulator appoints investigations panel
- Panel notifies publisher about investigation, remit etc
- Compiles a first report which it sends to news publisher
- Publisher has 28 days to respond in writing (2)
- Publisher then invited to respond orally to investigation (3)
- Investigative panel comes to preliminary conclusion
- Sends preliminary conclusion to news publisher which has 14 days to respond (4)
- Investigative panel reaches a decision
- Publisher may request a review of decision within 14 days (5)
- If requested, review panel reviews investigation panel decision and sends review to publisher
- Publisher has 14 days to respond to review (6)
- Conclusions of investigation passed to regulatory board for sanction
- ‘No fine or costs will be imposed unless the Regulated Entity has first been given the opportunity to attend a hearing’ (7)
Hacked Off will publish a more general analysis of the shortcomings of the latest proprietors’ proposal shortly.
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director of Hacked Off.