When the history of the phone-hacking scandal is written, journalists at The Guardian will be heroes. The persistence they showed – in particular Nick Davies and Alan Rusbridger – in pursuing and then exposing the culture of criminality in other parts of the press stands as a model of committed, fearless investigative journalism in the public interest.
Which makes it all the more worrying that an editorial in the paper should, even in a nuanced fashion, give credibility to the proposals of Lord Hunt of the now-defunct PCC and Lord Black of the Telegraph Group for another round of press self-regulation.
Sir Brian [Leveson] can build on the real progress made by Lord Black in outlining a new system of regulation which enjoys widespread support across the press.
It is not at all clear why the support which the proposals enjoy among the very people who drafted them – the proprietors and the editors – is an opinion worth much weight. It is akin to the prisoner in the dock being asked which form of punishment they would favour; and whether they would perhaps prefer to impose it on themselves, rather than go through the inconvenience of the justice system.
The leader then presents a false dichotomy between the options proposed by press reformers and the newspaper establishment:
“From his own pronouncements and questions while his inquiry was sitting, we can hazard a guess that Sir Brian is likely to be examining the middle ground between the two extremes being urged on him. There is real opportunity in this space, otherwise known as independent regulation.”
Independent regulation, as interpreted by Hunt/Black, does anything but what it says on the tin. Firstly, editors and proprietors want a veto over who should be chair of their new Trust. With their favoured candidate in place, the industry will continue to exercise great influence behind the scenes, just as they did in the old PCC, and the pretence of independence soon vanishes.
Neither does the scheme involve the prospect of real regulation: the novelty in Hunt/Black is a system of five-year contracts which are supposed to tie the press into rules of ethical conduct, providing a figleaf of legal authority without any real power. There is no way to compel newspapers to sign up. There is nothing to stop a newspaper from claiming that the regulator had breached its side of the deal, annulling the contract. When the agreements come to be renewed, there is nothing to stop papers attempting to renegotiate. And just imagine if the self-regulator actually imposed a big fine and a big newspaper group didn’t want to pay. Who would win?
It is voluntary self-regulation in all but name: the continuation of a system which brought us the Press Council (founded 1953, failed, ignored and disbanded in 1991) and the Press Complaints Commission (founded 1990, failed, ignored and due to be disbanded in 2012).
The Guardian believes the most fertile middle ground can be found in the creation of a system which provides quick and cheap redress for victims and rewards compliant publishers with special legal defences and lower penalties, notably in defamation actions. But there may be structural problems with this suggestion. A system of privileges for the press in exchange for membership is in place in Ireland but has not yet been tested in court. It may be unconstitutional in the UK, as it implies special defences are available to a certain class of defendant, but not to others.
Like the Telegraph and the Mail, the Guardian then finds itself slipping into scaremongering:
“…the trouble with compulsory regulation is that, in the wrong hands, it could edge us back towards something that looks like the licensing of the press and of journalists – something that was abolished in the late 17th century and which has no place in a free society. Some counter that this is a baseless fear, claiming that it would be possible to enshrine in law the regulator’s independence from both government and the newspaper industry. These are reasonable arguments to make in reasonable times. But will we always live in such times?”
So predictions of a dark future in a totalitarian Britain are the final plank of the argument which implies that even after the disgraceful conduct uncovered by Leveson, the repeated breaches of public trust, the decades of plain abuse of power, the cruelty inflicted on blameless people, that the newspapers can nonetheless still be trusted to sit as judge and jury in a court of their choosing.
We expect these arguments from the Daily Mail and News International. How surprising is it that they now appear in the Guardian, 89% of whose readers are in favour of a truly independent regulator, their independence guaranteed by law?
Photo from flickr.