by Hugh Tomlinson
The Daily Mail is in favour of regulation with statutory independent oversight – as long as it applies to others. Last week, without apparent irony, it reported favourably on the findings of the Legal Services Board – a “state watchdog” which had condemned the complaints handling of the barristers’ regulatory body, the Bar Standards Board (BSB). The message was clear to anyone except the Mail: regulators need independent oversight.
The article was a hard hitting piece published on 30 May 2013 under the title “Guilty: Barristers watchdog (looking into the Leveson lovers scandal) is condemned for its shoddy handling of complaints“. The – wholly irrelevant – reference to the “Leveson lovers scandal” was a nice touch. Although we don’t actually know whether there is a “scandal” yet – as the investigation has not concluded – it enabled the Mail to get in yet another dig at Lord Justice Leveson. The complaint is, of course, that he recommended a system of independent oversight for the regulation of the press.
The irony was lost on the Mail which gleefully reported that
A scathing inquiry from a state watchdog said that the Bar Standards Board – which regulates the elite of the legal profession – has failed to reach satisfactory standards in every area in which it operates.
The article goes into some detail about the reported failings of the BSB, highlighting concerns about its independence
The inquiry questioned the independence of the BSB because its purse strings are held by the Bar Council, the organisation which speaks for barristers.
The Bar Council can reject any item of BSB spending, must approve any cheques for more than £1,000, and can veto staff appointments.
The report said in some incidents the watchdog had ‘been concerned about the Bar Council’s attempts to fetter this independence’.
This problem is, of course, familiar to those who follow the media regulation debate. The “purse strings” of the PCC are held by an industry body – PressBoF. The continuing role for this body in providing finance is one of the criticisms levelled at the press version of the Royal Charter.
The legal profession has, traditionally, regulated itself. Barristers were regulated by the “General Council of the Bar” – a body run by themselves. In 2006, it was recognised that self-regulation did not serve the interests of the public and the BSB was established – with a majority of lay members. This is, in turn, overseen by the Legal Services Board – created by the Legal Services Act 2007 – with the job of ensuring that regulation in the legal services sector is carried out in the public interest.
In short, there is an independent regulatory body for barristers (and similar ones for other lawyers) with a “state watchdog” – an independent auditing body to check that the regulators are doing their job.
This is, of course, very similar to the system proposed by Lord Justice Leveson to regulate the press: an independent regulatory body (established by the press but with a lay majority), overseen by a “recognition body”. All this is necessary for the press – just as it is for the legal profession – because an independent regulator with a lay majority can get it wrong and needs a “watchdog”.
It is clear from its 30 May article that the Daily Mail understands, and accepts the case for independent statutory oversight of the “approved regulator” for barristers. It does not suggest that the fact that the Legal Services Board is statutory body opens up the legal profession to improper interference by politicians. It, correctly, assumes that tough independent regulation – with independent oversight – is in the interests of the public.
This is the clear and unanswerable argument for the acceptance of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for the regulation of the press.
Hugh Tomlinson QC is Chair of Hacked Off. This article was originally published on the International Forum for Responsible Media Blog, Inforrm.