SubScribe: Press regulation: history, hysteria and hyperbole Google+

Monday 18 March 2013

Press regulation: history, hysteria and hyperbole

Oh dear, oh dear. What a bugger's muddle we've all got into over press regulation v press freedom. The hacking victims want retribution, the media barons want influence, the politicians want to be seen as principled - and as winners. Meanwhile the journalists just want to get on with their jobs and the readers just want their crosswords, football results and some interesting 'news'.

An awful lot of nonsense has been written and spoken since the Guardian blew the phone-hacking scandal wide open in 2011 with its report that Milly Dowler's voicemail had been intercepted and deleted. We have had a £4m public inquiry, the closure of the country's best-selling newspaper, and seen police banging on suburban doors at dawn to arrest journalists who could more sensibly have been asked to attend the local copshop at a given time. The public money that has been spent on the demonising of the press is mind-boggling. 

We have now reached such a pitch that the three party leaders were  huddled together until the early hours arguing the toss over how the press should be reined in without using any reins or other restraining device. Come the dawn a deal had been done and everyone claimed to have won. This afternoon Mr Cameron told MPs that a royal charter would be approved by the Privy Council in May to establish a new regime to replace the supine Press Complaints Commission.  The new regulator would be able to impose £1m fines for bad practice,  and recalcitrant publishers that  refused to join in would be punished for their temerity with exemplary damages if they dared to argue a case in the courts.
All this was outlined in a three-hour emergency debate.
An emergency debate? We aren't going to war, we aren't joining the euro or leaving the EU, we haven't conceded the Falklands or Gibraltar. This is Budget week, for heaven's sake. The economy is in the mire, people are seeing their jobs vanish and their living standards fall. No one feels safe enough to spend what money they have - and if they have any to save, they'll be hard pushed to find somewhere to put it where it will still be worth as much this time next year. Of course the biggest emergency facing the country today is to decide whether a new press regulator should have the power to request or to direct a newspaper to publish a correction or apology in a particular position on a particular page. And of course it's so urgent that a solution has to be cooked up in a Westminster office at 2am with four anti-tabloid campaigners in attendance and not a newspaper editor in sight.

If the politicians have lost their sense of perspective, then so have the newspapers. And the prize for greatest misjudgment of the moment goes to The Sun for today's front page, which has absolutely nothing to do with what interests or concerns its readers and everything to do with what concerns its own interests. For the Sun, sister paper of the newspaper that prompted the whole Leveson circus, to portray itself as a Churchillian vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen  is to invite mockery.  Inside, you can almost see the steam coming out of Trevor Kavanagh's ears as he fulminates over the prospect of any interference in the freedom of the press. Kavanagh has written a fair bit of sense about the police's Operation Weeting and the hacking scandal in general, but to state, as he does today, that Britain will soon have the world's most heavily regulated newspapers is plainly bonkers.

The Mail, too, got all historical on us with a spread on all the public-spirited investigations that could never have been undertaken had the regulation being proposed today been in effect over the past 300 years. 

Now I happen to think that a free press is an essential element of a free democracy. You may describe today's compromise as the 'dab of statute' recommended by Leveson, but it's a dab too far.

To regulate a specific group of society that has no greater rights or freedoms than any individual within that society has to be wrong. To do so in such a manner that two-thirds of MPs can in future meddle still further and tighten the rules is deplorable.

Today's MPs may believe they are tying the hands of tomorrow's legislators, but they don't know what holes the next batch will find themselves in - or what super-whizzy scissors may by then have been invented to allow them to loosen or remove their bonds.
Once this charter is established with even a whiff of parliamentary input/control/oversight, then there will never be any return to true unfettered journalism, only tougher constraints down the road. 

So why, then, do I balk at the Mail and the Sun? Because there is no point in publishing this hysterical hyperbole today, all it will do is turn the reader off. The displays came too late to have any impact on the events of this afternoon and the bombastic tone will not engage the reader or inspire reasoned debate. The papers are just posturing.
So are the politicians. Outside of the Guardian, nobody cared much about journalists listening in to telephone conversations or voicemail until Milly Dowler's name was mentioned. Then all hell let loose. Down at the pub, in the queue at Tesco, at the bus-stop, everyone suddenly came over all righteous and started tut-tutting and declaiming 'Something must be done. It shouldn't be allowed..' 
As the full sordid tale emerged, politicians and vested interests leapt on the speeding bandwagon: Cameron had foolishly appointed a former News of the World editor as his communications chief; he had jolly country suppers with Rebekah Brooks. If he was to have any credibility at all, he had to bow to Ed Miliband's demands for a public inquiry. 
Whatever goes wrong in almost any sphere in this country you can depend on the Leader of the Opposition to call for a public inquiry. Generally these demands are brushed aside, but when they are successful, the result is invariably a long-winded and expensive investigation that rarely produces anything good or useful. (See previous blog post An Expensive Hiding to Nothing).
The Dowlers were hawked all over the shop: tea at No 10, meetings with Murdoch, and finally press conferences with Brian Cathcart's 'victims' group Hacked Off, whose most prominent members are Hugh Grant, J.K.Rowling and Kate and Gerry McCann. An interesting quartet.

Before 1994, few had heard of Hugh Grant. Then he was cast as a tongue-tied charmer in an engaging romcom. The film turned out to be a success, but our leading man seemed to  suffer a lack of confidence when it was released - to the extent that when it came to the premiere, he cast himself as an accessory to a pair of boobs, a sliver of black fabric and a collection of safety pins. Elizabeth Hurley and Versace left no one in any doubt about their objective that night: to reserve the following morning's front pages. It was calculated marketing, and there is no way that Grant was not a party to it. As a novice film star, he needed the press and the press obliged.
The country took Grant to its heart in the way that only sloppy Brits can - by mistaking the actor for the floppy-haired affable posh boy  he played. Grant and the film companies were equally happy to capitalise on  Four Weddings in similar films with a similar persona. Sadly, life offscreen wasn't quite the same. There was the Divine Brown fiasco (which he faced with refreshing candour and aplomb), the strange on-offness of the Hurley relationship, the dalliance with Jemima Khan and the brief affair that led to the birth of his daughter. None of this was of any business of anyone's but his. Except...
As the face of Hacked Off, Grant accepts that the public has a right to know if an MP espousing 'family values' is cheating on his wife or if a vicar has his hands in the collection pouch, but he feels that as a celebrity he is entitled to a private life and apparently that he should appear in the newspapers only when he wants to promote a film, which he does grudgingly.  But surely, if you make your living pretending to be an honourable Englishman and all-round good egg, it's not unreasonable for your audience to be told that actually you may not be.
Grant's assertions to Leveson that his phone had been hacked by the Mail on Sunday were rejected by the newspaper and described as "pure speculation" by the inquiry's counsel Robert Jay. Nor could he find offer any justification for linking a newspaper description of his flat with a break-in a short while before. Hardly concrete evidence of journalistic wrongdoing.
Yet Grant now has the ear of the Opposition, has been in regular contact with Harriet Harman, as she confirmed today, and felt it his right and duty to telephone members of the Shadow Cabinet over the weekend to urge them to push for firm regulation of the press. This is apparently quite OK. If, on the other hand, newspaper proprietors or editors put their case to  politicians of any colour that is special pleading.

J.K. Rowling has had more positive publicity than anyone could want: she is the woman who single-handedly persuaded a generation to return to books and an outstanding beacon for the under-privileged. Rowling's talent and business acumen have made her a billionaire and she has been listed as the 78th most powerful woman in the world. She shrewdly held on to the rights to her creation and oversees all marketing and merchandise; when she grants a newspaper interview, the contract is so watertight that the journalist concerned loses virtually all control of his or her words. 
She also told Leveson bout her suffering the hands of the press. One day her five-year-old brought home a batch of letters from school which turned out to include one from a journalist. There was no suggestion that anyone approached the child in person. Did she seriously think that some grubby hack had crept into the infants' cloakroom, found the child's satchel and snuck the note into it? Is it not far more likely that said journalist had asked a secretary or a teacher or a dinner lady to pass on the note? In which case, would Rowling's anger have been more reasonably directed at the school?

And then there were the McCanns, the couple who left their three children, aged three and one, untended in their holiday flat as they went out with friends to a bar 50, 70 or 100m away. When Madeleine vanished, every news organisation was on the parents' side; whenever they spoke, their words were reported in the hope of finding the child. Everyone held back from publishing  the thought that immediately jumped into every parent's head: 'What were they thinking of? I'd never leave my children alone'. None of us would want to be in their shoes, so the compassion overtook the disapproval: 'They must be feeling so guilty, so distraught....' The couple did  - and still do - everything they could to keep Madeleine's case in the limelight, and who can blame them? But if newspapers report every inch of progress in a police of investigation, are they not also obliged to record the less palatable events, such as the McCanns being seen as suspects?

So these are the spokespeople for the hacking victims, the group that wants to shackle the press. Ooh, sorry, the word shackle reminds me that I've forgotten someone: Max Mosley, Formula 1 boss and partaker in sado-masochistic orgies with prostitutes, who apparently doesn't mind talking about his sex life,so long as you don't suggest any Nazi overtones (he's sensitive about his surname and its connotations).

Hacked Off declared itself satisfied today with the deal announced in the Commons,  even though the restrictions are not as tough as Grant would have liked. Well hurrah! It's such a relief that these self-appointed guardians of people's freedoms, these people who have played the press so skilfully to their own advantage, are happy. Never mind the real victims - of thalidomide, of hospitals' incompetence, of systematic sexual and mental abuse, of carehome neglect  - who have achieved justice as a result of the dogged efforts of a free press, people who acknowledge  the importance of the newspaper campaigns and who want to make sure that others benefit in the future. 

We don't care for mob rule in this country. Courts listen to the victims of crime in considering an offender's sentence, but they do not consult the man whose house was burgled or the woman whose bag was snatched. We don't operate a blood money system whereby an offender can buy a lighter punishment with a donation to the victim's family.  And, in spite of the constant clamour, we have not reinstituted the death penalty. We don't heed the baying of the crowd because we put reason before emotion. Yet on this issue, our political leaders have kow-towed to  populism and paid more attention to indignance and ignorance  than to intelligence and insight.

Journalists are not professionals who have to produce certificates and  register with authorities to practice, they are tradesmen. Those who want to work on newspapers or magazines are well advised to take a college course, but  plenty are happy to set up their own websites or blogs  without any formal training or experience.  It's a bit like a  bricklayer who hasn't been taught how to  build a pier or do a herringbone pattern. He won't get a job on a building site, but there's nothing to stop him advertising his services on a card in the newsagent's. 
A journalist has no more right to go snooping into people's affairs than our bricklayer. Both are  bound by exactly the same laws of the land, including laws that forbid phone-hacking and protect people from being libelled or harassed. We don't need new rules especially for journalists - the whole point is that their rights and responsibilities are identical to those of every other citizen. 

Newspapers are struggling in this digital age, readerships are ageing;  sales and profits are falling, so that their journalists have to offer their efforts not simply on paper, but on the web, on tablets, on smartphones. Staffs are being slashed and quality is becoming harder to maintain. At the same time our amateur bloggers and tweeters can set their own agendas and devote the time and patience required to focus on particular issues unhindered by editor's demands, deadlines, print costs or Mr Cameron's royal charter. The Guardian and FT have spoken openly about abandoning print, and there are few who would bet on the traditional newspaper surviving beyond the next decade. The Mail and the FT have talked of moving their web operations to unregulated America. Others are likely to follow if they find restrictions in Britain unpalatable. None of this will help to improve the quality of our press.

News of the World reporters were unquestionably wrong to intercept people's telephones - as were those from all the other papers that indulged in the practice but have so far managed to keep their heads below the parapet. There are plenty of examples of despicable behaviour of which we should be ashamed. But newspapers are also capable of self-restraint: they respect news blackouts to protect kidnap victims;  they shy away from publishing offensive material, whether words or photographs, that are general currency on the internet. And of course, as we see from the MPs' expenses scandal, the expose of child sex grooming, the Mail's bravery over Stephen Lawrence, they can also do great good. People may like to imagine evil cigar-munching proprietors urging their minions on to ever more dastardly deeds to sell more papers, but in reality reporters just want to be first with a story and to serve their readers.

The proliferation of celebrity magazines and the TV schedules full of programmes such as Embarrassing Bodies, Through the Keyhole, You've Been Framed and Snog Marry, Avoid? suggest that privacy and intrusion don't worry the average Brit too much. The  Fool Britannia  television programme, described as a hidden camera show in which Dom Joly unleashes a host of pranks on unsuspecting members of the public has an audience of 2.5m. Indeed, it seems that we have become a nation of voyeurs with the ambition of becoming the watched rather than the watcher - no humiliation is too great if it means we can be on television. If we can't curb our appetite for this trash, it is no surprise that our 'caterers' will go to ever greater lengths to find titbits to satisfy us. We get the press and television that we want and deserve.
If we also want our newspapers - in whatever format - to expose wrong-doing, to call politicians to account, to focus on serious issues, we need to allow them to do their job with freedom and responsibility. If the price is the discomfiture of a few celebs, then so be it.

Let's go back to Milly Dowler for a moment. We know now that the reporter did not delete her voicemail messages, as at first suggested; we also know that the reporter told the police in 2002 - almost a decade before the scandal erupted - that he had hacked into her phone. In the furore of 2011, nobody would dare defend the hacking practice, but did anyone seriously believe the reporter's objective was to hinder the police inquiry or to dig dirt? It's a pound to a penny that he was hoping to pick up some little clue that would put him on the trail of the missing child and, with luck, bring the biggest scoop of all: 'We find Milly safe and well'. Would he have been the villain then - or the hero? Look at MPs' expenses. James Harding at The Times declined to buy the discs because it would have been handling stolen goods; The Telegraph said 'yes please.' One editor was feted with plaudits and gongs, the other lost his job. 

The Guardian's pursuit of Murdoch over the past three decades finally bore fruit with the hacking story. It exposed dreadful practices, bungling cover-ups and managerial incompetence. But from the moment the Dowler story was published, the cacophony of axes grinding has been drowning out common sense.
Today the 'something must be done' brigade won.
And the rest of us lost. 

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.


  1. I don't agree with with every sentiment expressed but this is a tour de force defence of a free press. JP

  2. @gameoldgirl great piece, well said words for common sense! MC

  3. THE best take on press regulation I have ever read. From a fellow journalist - thank you. Brilliant SR

  4. Thalidomide: exposing the company's delay in the victims' fight for compensation. Spycatcher: the right for the public to know what's being done by official agencies in our name. MPs' fraudulent expenses. Stopping politicians censoring which newpapers we could read in public libraries. Curbing councils using taxpayers' money to sue when we, the public, called them inefficient, incompetent or corrupt (that did not stop named individuals from pursuing legitimate claims). Championing victims of injustice. Freedom of speech for all of us. The list goes on. And how were these wrongs righted? Thanks to a free press. We lose that at our peril.Pat Blair

  5. I know this is going to get me into terrible trouble, but still: which of the above would have been obstructed by this new regulator, and how?
    Barney Thompson

  6. Each one of them, except for MPs' expenses, ended up in a fight through the English courts and then on to Europe, which the press ultimately won on your behalf. And even on MPs' expenses there were fights and threats by the executive. Don't kid yourself that regulators consistently act on the public's behalf. And ask yourself: who appoints the regulator? Look what's happened over the independent advisor on armed forces' pay. When politicians don't like what's happening, they shift the goalposts.

  7. But exactly which of those issues would this regulator have opposed? As far as I can see, the code of conduct will be written by the media. So I'm curious to know which clauses/rules will be invoked to stop stories such as MPs' expenses or spot fixing in sport. And I don't know who will appoint the regulators, or how they will be appointed, because I haven't yet found any news stories that tell me. It's not that I think this regulator is a force for good or evil, I just can't yet see the evidence that points either way.Barney Thompson

  8. As i see it, barney, the problem lies not with a new regulator to replace the useless PCC but with the way it is being set up. we are apparently not to be trusted with self-regulation, so the new body is being established by royal charter. people say this is 'the queen', but she rubber stamps a decision by the privy council, which is made up of politicians. even that wouldn't be a problem, except that an eentsy weentsy law is being passed to say that changes can be made to the charter only by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament. that is where we let the politicians in, and that's my point about clever scissors in the future to untie their hands. the party leaders may portray this as a safeguard, but it is in fact the loophole. if times get tough, it shouldnt be hard to find two-thirds of mps ready and willing to tinker. i'm sure the mps' exes story would never have got through under these terms, since the material was based on stolen goods - as james harding emphasised over and over when he was trying to defend his decision not to buy. as to who will be on the new body, as i understand it, it will have a chairman independent of the industry, publishers will have no place and members may well include journeyman hacks like us.

  9. I take all that on board (though I'm not sure that finding a two thirds majority in both houses is as easy as you say) but I come back to the same point: how would the new regulator have obstructed MPs exes? What mechanism, above and beyond the existing law of the land and whatever that said about the stolen goods status of the exes files, would be used to stop publication of the story/ies? There is plenty not to like about this - including the fact that Hacked Off were allowed into the room and the whole deal was knocked out at 2 in the morning - as well as the possibility of political interference in the future. But I just don't find the other arguments against it - being put fwd by the papers/editors themselves - convincing. The practice of writing BS about someone on the front page with a 264pt headline and issuing a 1/2-inch apology three months later on page 98 just wasn't going to cut it anymore. And I wouldn't want bankers to have a prominent profile on a banking regulator, or supermarkets on a food regulator. And the other complaints I've seen this morning about bloggers being in trouble if they libel people are simply laughable because 1) small-scale bloggers are to be excluded from the exemplary damages stuff and 2) more importantly, bloggers shouldn't libel people! The Guardian story on this disappears up its own fundament in the last three pars. If anything needs addressing there it's our ridiculous libel laws, not upholding the right of someone to lie about someone else. (Deep breath) In short, this may well turn out to be the death of free speech in the UK, I don't know. But I would like to see HOW.Barney Thompson

  10. Re: James Harding and MPs exes. So we have an example of one paper exercising self-censorship on a point of law (and principle), and another going ahead and publishing as it ruled that the public interest outweighed the stolen goods bit. So who was right? And did the PCC say anything at the time that might give us a guide as to how this new regulator would have responded? Barney Thompson

  11. I can't speak for anyone but myself. The excesses have become so extreme and the PCC so useless that some movement was necessary, but I can't stomach the appearance of politicians anywhere on the scene, no matter how deep in the background.
    As i say in the post, journalists have no greater rights or responsibilities than any other citizen. we aren't licensed so anyone can say they're a journalist, whether or not they're employed by a newspaper, magazine or broadcaster. i therefore think that to set up a regulator to deal with one small defined group is wrong and a recipe for disaster. cameron knows he can't police the internet, and leveson ignored it as much as he could. newspapers will stop appearing in print before long (never thought i'd say that), so this may all be a waste of time - and if big publishers like the spectator and private eye don't sign up it won't work. they are all the practicalities, but the basic fact is the state and parliament should keep its fingers out of the is wrong, wrong, wrong...and i'd have thought that someone with such a strong russian background would see why.
    on the mps' exes, of course the telegraph was right!

  12. It's a good point about 'speedy law' Liz - 3am law is even worse. It seems to me in their haste to avoid a damaging defeat the politicos and lobbyists have added a reference to news websites that opens up a whole new can of worms. On the face of it, SubScribe will have to sign up to the new regulator or run the risk of exemplary damages if someone makes an OTT comment! AC

  13. Not according to the culture secretary (although she may not know anything much). From the Grauniad website: Miller said the new rules were designed to protect "small-scale bloggers" and to "ensure that the publishers of special interest, hobby and trade titles such as the Angling Times and the wine magazine Decanter are not caught in the regime", but Hello! magazine would be subject to regulation. She said the "one-man band or a single blogger" would not be affected by the legislation because of the definition of "relevant publisher" in relation to exemplary damages. Miller said "student and not-for-profit community newspapers" will not be caught under the new rules and that "scientific journals, periodicals and book publishers will also be left outside the definition and therefore not exposed to the exemplary damages and costs regime BT

  14. Love the bit about scientific's trying to protect them by amending the libel laws (and rightly so) that brought us to this scramble to sort out a press regulator. blame david puttnam for putting that particular spanner in the works (but not if i'm going to be liable to a libel case)

  15. If regulation can't work out what's in a lasagne. Then what chance with regulating the Press. ?

  16. Liz, Thanks for the fine piece of thinking out loud.

  17. Society gets the press and tv that it deserves and our obsession with fame and the famous is out of control. It's high time everybody did some navel gazing and stopped looking for a scape goat for our guilty conscience. And it's a certainty that any government interference in media is very bad especially when we all have the collective power to regulate through our consuming habits. Nice piece, by the way!