Timeline of Press Self-Regulation:
A History of Failure
The competitive conditions of the mass press from the 1920s onwards led to recurrent complaints about the way some newspapers were responsible for intrusions into privacy as well as sensationalism and inaccuracy.
This led to reform attempts.
In 1934, the National Union of Journalists passed a code of professional conduct which asserted that reporters should do nothing that will cause pain or humiliation to bereaved, innocent or otherwise distressed persons.
The following year the Institute of Journalists sought, but failed, to win parliamentary support for a Journalists Registration Bill – which would have made it an offence for an unregistered person to use the title of journalist.
The first post war Royal Commission on the Press reports. Its terms of reference combined the idea that the press should be free with a desire to foster responsibility and public service amongst all engaged in the profession of journalism.
The First Royal Commission on the Press report concludes that there has been a “progressive decline in the calibre of editors and in quality of British Journalism.”
The Royal Commission on the Press recommends the establishment of a system of self-regulation based on a ‘General Council of the Press,’ which would promote best practice and encourage a spirit of responsibility, draw up a code of conduct and have the power to receive plus adjudicate on complaints and to impose appropriate sanctions.
A voluntary system was supported by the Labour government as well as the NUJ but opposed by newspaper proprietors. The delay caused mounting political controversy.
In 1953, following pressure from MPs and the now Conservative government, the proprietors established a General Council of the Press. The organisation’s role was to preserve press freedom and to consider only those complaints about the press which came from people directly affected.
There was a threat of political action to establish statutory regulation.
But the GCP did not adhere to any recommendations, it had no code nor lay representation.
The failure of the GCP to deal with public complaints and foresee or intervene in the wave of newspaper closures at the end of the 1950’s led to more complaints and calls for better regulation.
The second report, by the Royal Commission on the Press outlined recommendations for statutory regulation, unless the performance of the General Council improved.
The GCP announced it would reconstitute itself as The Press Council, with 20 % membership from non-press members. The Press Council was chaired by an activist chairman, Lord Devlin. But problems persisted. Newspapers were reluctant to publish negative rulings by the Council.
There were complaints about insensitive coverage of national disasters, such as the devastating coal waste slip at the South Wales coal mining village of Aberfan in 1966. News of the World flouted the council and courts in high profile court cases, such as the Moors murder trial in the same year.
The Conservatives criticised the system of self-regulation as inadequate consumer protection.
Concerns about the inability of the Council to raise standards, as well as concerns over privacy invasions and inadequate addressing of complaints, led to the establishment of a third Royal Commission on the Press, to ‘inquire into the factors affecting the maintenance of the independence, diversity and editorial standards of newspapers and periodicals, nationally, regionally and locally.’
The third Royal Commission report criticised the Press Council. It proposed that it should produce a written Code of Conduct for journalists. It again suggested a statutory solution, if the response of the industry and Press Council was insufficient. The Press Council rejected five of the twelve recommendations made and ignored recommendations for a written code of conduct.
Press competition intensified and aggressive journalism was encouraged by powerful proprietor Rupert Murdoch.
A story which ran in The Sun, about the private life of Elton John, resulted in libel action, which the singer won. These cases prompted concerns and a series of unsuccessful Private Members Bills aimed at raising press standards via statutory means.
Sir David Calcutt’s ‘Inquiry into Privacy and Related Matters’ was established to investigate press standards. The Press Council set about reforming itself in this time and issues its first ever Code of Practice.
The report, released in 1990, recommended a new industry run body, a Press Complaints Commission and new measures designed to protect privacy. The Calcutt Inquiry Report concluded that existing self-regulatory arrangements for the press should be revised, and that the Press Council should be abolished and replaced with a new self-regulatory organisation: the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). It suggested that the press should be given “one final chance to prove that voluntary self-regulation can be made to work.”
It set out a framework of measures that it regarded as the necessary elements of an effective self-regulatory regime, and that the PCC should be given 18 months to demonstrate that non-statutory self-regulation could be made to work effectively. If at the end of that period it was demonstrated that the PCC had failed to work effectively, a statutory tribunal should take over the job of dealing with complaints about the press.
The PCC was formed by the industry and a Code of Practice Committee against which editorial practice might be judged.
Calcutt was appointed to review the record of the PCC, in the wake of a wave of new press scandals surrounding the private lives of members of the Royal family and politicians including Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown and David Mellor. This review coincided with a high-profile debate surrounding Clive Soley Press Freedom Responsibility Bill, which sought to introduce a statutory requirement to correct factual inaccuracies, known as Right to Reply, as well as promoting press freedom. Calcutt confirmed that the PCC had failed and should be replaced by a statutory body to deal with complaints.
The government was under sustained pressure from sections of the traditionally Conservative -supporting press over Europe, as well as the supposed inadequacies of PM John Major’s leadership. The concept of statutory regulation was dropped. The Labour Party also withdrew its commitment to a statutory Right to Reply, which it had supported since the 1980s because it was keen to gain political support from the newspaper industry ahead of the next General Election.
A second Calcutt report was published. It concluded that self-regulation by the PCC had failed and called for the introduction of a statutory Press Complaints Tribunal. The press rejected these conclusions but did institute some reforms of the PCC.
The Government responded to the second Calcutt report and rejected his recommendation for statutory regulation.
The death of Princess Diana while being pursued by paparazzi leads to calls for reform, but they ultimately come to nothing.
Investigator Glen Mulcaire and News of the World journalist Clive Goodman are convicted, after it emerges that Goodman had commissioned Mulcaire to hack phones connected with the Royal household. Subsequent police investigations, and an investigation by the complaints-handler the PCC, find no further wrongdoing.
Further allegations of hacking mount, with The Guardian and New York Times both pursuing the story.
Dozens of hacking claims against the News of the World emerge from celebrities. By the summer, it becomes clear that many ordinary people had their phones hacked too – including Milly Dowler, a teenage girl who was murdered in 2002.
The PCC – the complaints-handler created by the press in 1991 to keep the threat of statutory regulation at bay – was discredited because it failed to uncover the extent of phone hacking by journalists at the News of the World and (it was later confirmed) several other newspapers. There was also perceived to have been a breakdown in ethical standards across the national press, with cases such as those of Christopher Jefferies and the McCann family highlighted as evidence of a culture of press unaccountability. As a consequence, Lord Justice Leveson was appointed to chair a public inquiry into ‘the culture, practices and ethics’ of the UK press, to inquire and report in two parts.
The first part of the Leveson Report recommended an independent system of press regulation with statutory elements. Press membership should be voluntary but incentivised in the first instance, with new free speech legal protections for member publishers.
A compulsory “backstop” regulatory system should be brought into effect if, after one year, newspapers refuse to join the system.
Newspapers lobbied heavily for the Leveson recommendations to be dropped, arguing that the recommended statutory backing was incompatible with press freedom and that the Leveson system represented a route to political interference in the press. The proposed statute was replaced by a Royal Charter to appease these concerns, but newspapers continued to argue that the use of a Charter was not compatible with the principles of press freedom.
Despite making these objections newspapers went on to apply for a Royal Charter of their own, which watered down Leveson’s recommendations. Their application was unsuccessful.
After negotiations between all three political parties, and having rejected the Charter put forward by the newspaper industry, an agreement on a Leveson-standard Royal Charter was reached in March 2013.
Although the Conservative leadership in Government at the time had appeared to be prepared to back down in the face of press hostility, their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, Labour, the SNP, other opposition parties, and a large minority of Conservative MPs made it clear that such a decision would be unacceptable. The Charter was agreed and, later, sealed by the Privy Council.
The Charter established the Press Recognition Panel to validate the industry’s regulatory procedures, and was backed with a few minor elements of statute to incentivise press participation and to protect the system from political meddling.
As feared by reform campaigners, the wealthiest newspapers went on to reject the system. Most of the UK’s largest newspaper and magazine groups, including high-circulation national newspapers and the corporately-owned local press, established the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – a complaints-handler which did not meet the requirements of the Leveson system.
Some of the key ways IPSO falls short of the Leveson system include:
Plans for the establishment of IMPRESS, the UK’s first independent press regulator, were well underway. Publications had begun to sign up, and the body planned to comply with the Leveson recommendations – achieving “recognition” as an independent regulator in the following years. The majority of newspapers to sign up were local, investigative and special interest titles; often with a distinctive ethical identity.
The Government began to indicate it was preparing to renege on Parliament’s decision to legislate in 2013 on incentives to encourage newspapers to sign up to the Leveson system instead of persisting with IPSO. In doing so, the Government effectively withdrew its commitment to providing publishers signing up to IMPRESS with the legal press freedom protections they had been promised.
IMPRESS became “recognised” as Leveson-compliant. But the dozens of publishers who signed up continued to be denied their promised free speech legal protections by a Government which was determined not to introduce the incentives Parliament voted for in 2013. This decision was criticised as an attack of freedom of speech and on Parliamentary sovereignty.
The Government was consulting at this time on whether to proceed with the second part of the Leveson Inquiry. Leveson himself was asked, and confirmed that his view was that it should go ahead.
The Government announced that Leveson Part Two would be cancelled. This was despite the majority of responses to the consultation calling for it to be completed. The Government was accused of attempting to mislead the House of Commons over how it represented the outcome of the consultation, and of the views of Sir Brian Leveson.
Today, more publishers are now members of IMPRESS than IPSO – despite the Government’s failure to introduce the agreed incentives. But the largest, wealthiest and most powerful publishers (and most titles) are in IPSO – the complaints-handler which is run by a politician, has its rules controlled by newspaper executives, has its standards written by editors, and which has been accused of bias and a failure to protect the public.
After 7 inquiries in 70 years, the biggest players in the press remain outside any meaningful form of regulation or accountability. A familiar pattern emerges, of compliant governments protecting newspapers in an attempt to win favourable coverage.