By Brian Cathcart
The chair of IPSO, the self-regulator set up by the big newspaper companies, delivered a lecture last week at the London School of Economics on the future of press regulation. It was revealing in several respects.
Early in his text Sir Alan characterised the debate about press regulation as follows:
‘Post-Leveson, the attempt to set up a system of regulation of the press is littered with rhetoric which demonstrates nothing more than confusion, profound disagreement as to which way the compass points point and ceaseless ability to exchange insults. In this primitive, ritualistic haka, for every Tom Watson there is a Paul Dacre.’
He then picked out strongly-worded quotations from Watson and Dacre to illustrate his point.
The message was clear. The two sides to this argument have been acting and speaking unreasonably and what is needed is a reasonable person to bang heads together. That reasonable person – the ‘interpreter’, as he put it – is of course Sir Alan Moses.
For a man of reason and an interpreter, however, his language and behaviour were strange.
Addressing his lecture almost entirely to those on the Watson side of the argument (that is, the supporters of the Royal Charter) Sir Alan accused them – and these were the terms he used – of peddling confused and deafening rhetoric and stupid and puerile arguments, of shouting and jeering, of pointless vituperation and of abusing, condemning and complaining.
His whole demeanour towards Charter supporters, especially when it came to answering questions at the end, was angry and dismissive.
By contrast, when he addressed the Dacre side of the argument, Sir Alan’s message was all about better communication and understanding. The newspaper publishers, he said, must be given motivation. There must be dialogue with them and responsiveness, and sympathy for the pressures a modern press has to withstand.
On the evidence of this lecture it would seem that as Sir Alan navigates between the supposed extremes of the debate he prefers one side, the press side. Every effort must be made to accommodate the desires of the big newspaper publishers, he suggests, while to the rest the former judge is happy to dole out some vituperation of his own.
Is this part of a longer-term strategy that is more even-handed? Was this lecture intended as a slap for the critics of IPSO (who were indeed present in numbers at LSE), and does he dish out similar treatment to news publishers when he speaks to them? If so, it might be consistent with the idea of banging heads together.
We’ll address that question in a moment, but first let us deal with Sir Alan’s general characterisation of the regulation debate.
A false equivalence
He is wrong to suggest an equivalence between the people who favour the Leveson-based Royal Charter and the men who run the big newspaper corporations, and one does not need to resort to vituperation to prove it.
The former are in favour of a solution to the decades-old problem of press abuses that has the sanction of a formally-constituted public inquiry under a senior judge, which sat for 14 months, reviewed the history and the arguments with great care and heard every conceivable point of view.
That judge’s recommendations (after some dilution designed to appease the press) were subsequently enshrined in a Royal Charter which received the backing of every single party in Parliament (and the unanimous support of the Scottish Parliament).
Further, the Charter has the support of the leading victims of press abuse – those who have suffered as a result of the regulatory failures of the past – and (as the polls have demonstrated) of the overwhelming majority of the public.
The Charter, in short, has legitimacy.
The people behind IPSO, by contrast, represent the industry found by Leveson to have ‘wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people’, and their behaviour shows that they are not sorry and that they are determined to prevent change.
The evidence is unanswerable. Sir Alan cannot possibly deny that the leading newspaper groups, including those which have broken the law and tried to cover it up, are deliberately and systematically misrepresenting their own behaviour, the Leveson Inquiry and the Charter to their readers.
Nor can he deny that IPSO follows closely a design (the ‘Hunt/Black plan’) that was explicitly rejected by Leveson as insufficient to protect the public.
Nor can he deny that the IPSO structure is riven with representatives of the big companies who are tainted by their involvement in past abuses and in the discredited PCC that helped cover them up.
In short, IPSO has no legitimacy. It exists in defiance of legitimacy.
If there are two sides in this argument, therefore, they are not, as Sir Alan appears to suggest, equivalent. One is legitimate and represents the interests of the public and the victims, while the other represents the interests of the unrepentant perpetrators.
To suggest that they are equivalent is like saying that you will give equal weight to the views and feelings of a convicted burglar and those of his victim.
As for the language used by the two sides, a judge should surely see that the test is not whether it is strong, but whether it is justified by the facts. The assertions of Tom Watson MP that were quoted in Sir Alan’s speech stand up to that test; the assertions of Paul Dacre do not.
Tough on the abusers?
Now for the question of how Sir Alan treats the press industry when he speaks to it. Does he challenge them in the same way? Does he criticise? Does he denounce their confused and deafening rhetoric, their stupid and puerile arguments and their pointless vituperation?
In November he addressed the Society of Editors, and this is how he began:
‘Since it is Sunday you are, no doubt, expecting a sermon. Something stern and formidable, delivered from on high, in tones of rebuke, threatening hell- fire, damnation and warning you that you are all going to burn. You are after all the newspapers and I am, after all, your regulator. I am sorry but I am going to disappoint you.
‘This is the first opportunity I have had as Chairman of Ipso to address you directly and you might agree that by now there has been, like the public swimming baths, quite enough noise at the shallow end: perhaps it is suitable that I should speak on the Sabbath because it is, as IPSO starts, a moment for rational and, at least somewhat more measured reflection.
‘So what is my text? We do not want a boring defensive press: we want a free fair and unruly press ruled only by an independent regulator Ipso who will support you and encourage you to remain so.’
That is how the IPSO chair deals with the perpetrators of press abuses and cover-ups. (And bear in mind that the Royal Charter poses no threat to freedom of expression, as Sir Alan knows.) It looks very like appeasement.
To repeat: if the IPSO chair is navigating between two extremes there can be no doubt which side of the waterway he finds more congenial.
Sir Alan’s predicament
Last week at LSE Sir Alan put forward two main arguments. The first was that if you want get the press to accept effective regulation you have to persuade them, and the second was that we the public should trust him to do the job. (Indeed it was puerile and futile not to trust him.)
Yet when he was asked what reforms he was seeking for IPSO, when he expected to achieve them and why he still hoped to succeed when the senior figure acting for the press has said publicly that there will be no change, Sir Alan had no answers. We just have to trust him.
The problem is that he has not earned and cannot earn that trust. That is not a comment on his sincerity but on his predicament and on his judgement.
This is a man, after all, who chose to accept a job offered to him by wrongdoers who freely advertised their lack of remorse. He knew, or should have known, that they were exploiting his credibility to give IPSO a veneer of independence when it had no structural independence. And in negotiating his own appointment (and his £150,000 salary for three days a week), he failed to secure any up-front reforms of IPSO that would make it more independent.
By these actions he placed his own opinions (based, it is clear, on little or no background knowledge) above the formal, considered findings of a fellow judge, no less senior than himself, delivered in the report of a public inquiry commissioned by Parliament.
He has no power now to make IPSO effective and independent and never will. At best he can go cap in hand and ask his paymasters for change, but they have already told him they will concede nothing substantive.
He is fatally compromised by the dubious process of his own appointment and by being on the industry’s payroll. Legitimacy – a word he actually used several times in his lecture – is so far from his grasp as to be unattainable.
At the LSE Sir Alan appeared bitter and at moments despairing. It is little wonder. Not long ago he was retiring from the bench with a good reputation, but for some reason he took a job that could never bring him credit with anyone but the Murdochs and Dacres of this world, and no sensible person wants that.