The FT’s editorial, “Leveson, the media and the law”, sets out the paper’s position on a new regulatory framework for the press in some detail for the first time today. The piece begins by acknowledging that the current system is not fit for purpose:
“There is a strong case for regulatory change. The phone-hacking scandal has revealed serious ethical shortcomings in the way some newspapers have operated. It is also clear that the existing system of self-regulation, in the form of the Press Complaints Commission, has failed.”
But if the paper is clear that things need to change, it is also overwhelmingly concerned about the implications of a substantially new system:
“But the Financial Times remains wary of opening the door to state intervention. The primary purpose of regulation must be to protect the public from unfair treatment at the hands of the press . This can be done without the state’s direct involvement. The idea of formal state regulation or the licensing of journalists is anathema.”
Indeed. No one supporting Hacked Off’s campaign for an independent press regulator, its independence underpinned by statute, wants state intervention in a free press. We want proper redress for the victims of press intrusion and harassment, without any Government (or industry) interference. We seek additional safeguards for investigative journalists working on behalf of the public. And as for the notion of a licensing system for journalists, this is an idea which was floated by the newspaper industry itself a while back, but swiftly dismissed as impractical and unenforceable.
The FT then considers the merits of the newspaper industry’s own scheme of choice – the self-regulatory body proposed by Lord Hunt of the defunct PCC and Lord Black of the Telegraph Group:
“This body would have greater powers than the PCC, and would enforce compliance with the editors’ code of conduct, by fines if necessary. The proposal requires further tweaking to guarantee its independence from the industry but it is basically sound.”
This suggests that all is required is a little further tweaking of the current system and all will be well. It overlooks the sixty year record of failure in self-regulation of the press and repeated broken promises by the industry to clean up its act. Surely, it is asking much too much of the public to believe that the most appropriate form of action at this stage, after the shocking revelations uncovered by Leveson, is yet another round in the “last chance saloon”? So what if the Hunt/Black model were underpinned with legislation:
“The main argument for backing such a body with statute is that media organisations would be obliged to accept its oversight… No regulatory system could encompass the myriad sources of online news now available…”
This is to suggest that some improvement – say a regulator able to enforce a code of conduct over major UK news providers as defined by circulation and the number of journalists employed – would be a waste of time, as it could not be enforced over everyone, everywhere. Taking this thought to its logical conclusion would mean abandoning the idea of any regulatory body, self-administered or independent, as it could only affect large news organisations within the UK jurisdiction. No regulator can regulate everything, but we still have regulation firmly backed by the public in most areas of life, because where possible, the public want to maintain standards. Furthermore, the leader hints that we are at a constitutional cliff-edge:
“To achieve this dubious benefit, a legal Rubicon would have to be crossed”
To suggest that an independent press regulator, its freedom from state control enshrined in parliament-made statute is an irreversible step towards state control of the media is a gross exaggeration. An independent regulator would merely mean that the press is (more) obliged to adhere to the kind of code it already has, but is unable to apply. Editors have been subject to fines since the creation of the PCC, but as things stand, they can choose to ignore the penalties if they wish. The elision of independent regulation with state control enables the FT to paint a spectral picture of a muted media, no longer able to criticise the mighty:
“There is a strong public interest in the preservation of a raucous and independent media that can expose injustice and hold power to account. British newspapers have an honourable tradition of performing this role. This must not be dulled by regulation – however well meaning.”
But this is another straw man. There is no sensible person alive with an interest in this issue who wants to see the media’s ability to expose injustice and hold power to count “dulled by regulation”. On the contrary, Hacked Off wants further protections for fearless public interest investigative journalism.
The piece ends with a direct warning for Leveson:
“Those who live within the law should have no need of state sanction to operate newspapers. This is a sound principle. Lord Justice Leveson and the government should beware of overturning it.”
Taken overall, then, the arguments are the same ones deployed noisily over the past week by Tim Luckhurst, Boris Johnson, Lord Black and the Daily Mail. They acknowledge that the behaviour of some national newspapers has been despicable – but insist that more self-regulation is the answer. They seek to gloss over the fact that a new system without legal underpinning would be as weak and incapable of enforcing its judgements as the current one. The existing legislation did not prevent notorious abuses by sections of the press. And they elide the concept of an effective regulator, its independence underpinned by statute with the idea of state regulation of the press, even though the two concepts are from different planets. Yet an independent regulator, its very independence from Government and the newspaper industry guaranteed by parliamentary statute, promises the opposite to a state-controlled regulator. These are inconvenient truths for the industry, and for the time being, they are being ignored.
So too is the plight of people who became victims of the manifest failures of self regulation and who were unable to gain access to justice. For a paper which has been fearless in its condemnation of the corruption, bullying, cover-ups and deceit which the Leveson Inquiry revealed as common practice in some quarters of the press, it is disappointing that the FT seems to be falling into line with the worst offenders in suggesting that nothing particular needs to change.