by Brian Cathcart
PressBoF – the Press Standards Board of Finance – is the industry body that is desperately trying to block the Leveson-based Royal Charter for press self-regulation which was approved by all parties in Parliament in March.
Or to put it another way: PressBoF is a small, shadowy and anti-democratic group of powerful people who were condemned by the Leveson Inquiry for failing in their duty to the public but who will stop at nothing to escape being made accountable for their actions.
Let’s look at that more closely.
‘Small and shadowy’
PressBoF has between eight and ten members, most of whom are little known to the public or to working journalists. They represent organisations of newspaper and magazine proprietors. PressBoF has no website and its principal online presence is a few, often out-of-date references on the website of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). PressBoF appears on that site to have an address in Edinburgh, but it does not seem to hold meetings there and the address it has registered at Companies House is in London. The organisation very rarely issues a public statement and can be hard to track down. Another curiosity is that members can apparently serve very long terms – two have been involved for around 20 years.
PressBoF does not accept the verdict of the Leveson Inquiry, a year-long formal investigation of the press conducted at the request of the prime minister by a senior judge – at which PressBoF and all of the bodies it represents were not only able to give evidence but in some cases had teams of lawyers there to ensure complete fairness. PressBoF is now also defying the will of Parliament as expressed in an agreement approved not just by the government and the opposition, but also by every single party in the Commons on 18 March, and it is equally defying the will of the Scottish Parliament as expressed on 1 May.
Further, PressBoF’s leading members, through the newspapers they control, abuse the democratic freedom of the press by distorting and concealing the truth of these matters and by refusing to give voice to the views of the overwhelming majority of the public, as revealed in every reputable opinion poll on the matter in the past year. This is anti-democratic conduct.
Two men dominate PressBoF.
One is Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail since 1992 and also the editor in chief of Associated Newspapers and the chair of PressBoF’s editors’ code committee. Paid £1.8m a year by the Mail, he is without doubt the most powerful newspaperman in the country and is deferred to, if not actually feared, by most other editors as well as by politicians and leading public figures. They know that if Dacre doesn’t like you, his newspapers will attack you.
The other is Lord Guy Black, the PressBoF chair who is executive director of the Telegraph Media Group and also a prominent and active Conservative peer. Lord Black is a former director of the PCC, a former press secretary to Michael Howard when he was Conservative leader and a famously well-connected figure in the media who numbers Rebekah Brooks among his close friends. He was also once David Cameron’s boss, and he has no background whatever in journalism.
Also on the PressBoF board, apparently by right, is a top executive from Rupert Murdoch’s News International, the company that gave us phone hacking and then the prolonged cover-up of phone hacking, as well as the alleged corruption of public figures. Almost 40 people are currently awaiting trial in relation to these and related offences.
Two other members of PressBoF, both lawyers, appear to do the leg-work for Dacre and Black. They are David Newell, who sits on the board as the representative of the regional and local newspaper proprietors, and Paul Vickers, the secretary and legal director of Trinity Mirror plc.
Among the less publicly active members are Nicholas Coleridge, boss of the Conde Nast magazine company, which publishes GQ, Vogue, House and Garden and Glamour, Jim Raeburn (secretary), Barry McIlheney (representing magazines) and Tim Blott (of the Herald and Times group in Scotland).
‘Found to have failed in their duty to the public’
Lord Black told the Inquiry: ‘the main aim of PressBoF . . . was to ensure that sufficient funds were available for the maintenance of the industry’s self regulatory system, and to provide a vital link between the industry and the independent Commission’. (First witness statement to Leveson Inquiry, par 12)
Lord Justice Leveson found that PressBoF starved the PCC of funds, ensuring it was ineffective. He wrote: ‘It is also clear to me that the funding made available to the PCC is barely sufficient to enable it to conduct its complaints handling functions effectively. Further, in so limiting the funding available to the PCC, the organisation was unable to exercise other functions that might be properly expected of a regulator, for example, in relation to investigations into industry conduct, and the promotion of standards.’ (P 1521)
The Leveson Report made clear that PressBoF didn’t just hold the purse strings of the PCC, it ran it. PressBoF appointed the chair and oversaw the appointment of the commissioners; the PCC’s articles of association could not be altered without PressBoF approval, and PressBoF also runs the committee that writes the code of practice which the PCC is supposed to enforce. Given such influence, PressBoF clearly carries the principal responsibility for the success or failure of the PCC. As David Cameron said on 8 July 2011: ‘Let’s be honest, the Press Complaints Commission has failed.’ The scandalous nature of that failure is exposed in detail in the Leveson Report, part J, chapter 4.
Worse still, PressBoF refused to listen when it was pointed out that the PCC system was not working. The judge wrote: ‘The failings which have fatally undermined the PCC and caused policy makers and the public to lose trust in the self-regulatory system are not new. They have been consistently identified by external scrutiny for at least a decade.’ (p 1579) Consistently, he wrote, ‘a show of reform has been used as a substitute for the reality of it’. (p 1535) He went on: ‘It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the self-regulatory system was run for the benefit of the press not of the public.’ (p1579)
Each one of the members of PressBoF over at least the past ten years shares the responsibility for this.
‘They will stop at nothing’
The Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch press – the three national newspaper groups represented on the board of PressBoF – have led the way in an unscrupulous press campaign against reform.
They engage in wrecking tactics. See here.
They continue to abuse innocent members of the public. See here.
‘They want to escape being made accountable for their actions’
PressBoF remains determined to avoid effective press regulation – even though the Royal Charter approved by Parliament contains a string of concessions to press demands, and even though it guarantees press freedom to a greater degree than was the case in the PCC years. This is because PressBoF and its members reject the very principle of accountability to the public.
They are utterly determined to:
- restrict the public’s ability to gain access to justice in libel and privacy cases;
- curb the public’s ability to raise complaints about press inaccuracy and unfairness;
- cling on to the power to bury any corrections on little-read back pages;
- block any effective investigation of wrongdoing that might lead to sanctions;
- pick or veto the members of any regulator and inspection body;
- keep seats warm on these bodies for their political cronies.
All of these demands run directly counter to the recommendations of the Leveson Report. More than that, they were explicitly rejected by the judge when they were put before him in the so-called Hunt/Black plan (PressBoF’s first attempt at ‘cosmetic reform’ of the PCC). The prime minister also explicitly rejected that plan. Yet PressBoF revived it in its draft Royal Charter of 12 February and again in the draft Royal Charter it submitted to the Privy Council on 30 April. PressBoF has not shifted.
PressBoF has also never admitted its responsibility for the failure of the PCC. Instead it brazenly claims: ‘PressBoF has a long and distinguished history of supporting the preservation and maintenance of press standards and the adjudication of complaints from the public.’
So, to repeat, PressBoF is a small, shadowy and anti-democratic group of powerful people who were condemned by the Leveson Inquiry for failing in their duty to the public but who will stop at nothing to escape being made accountable for their actions.
If such a body existed in the banking industry, the NHS or the police it would be the target of relentless assault in the national press. If it was a trade union, the howling and abuse would be deafening. But it is not. PressBoF receives almost no press coverage, and certainly no critical coverage.
The members of PressBoF say they are the proper guardians of journalistic ethics in Britain. Would you trust them?
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director of Hacked Off.