SubScribe: A new Press regulator? Yes please, after all it worked for police, banks, energy companies... Google+

Thursday 10 October 2013

A new Press regulator? Yes please, after all it worked for police, banks, energy companies...

What makes you think the Press is different? Don't be so arrogant. Why should you get special treatment?

When it comes to Press regulation there are two distinct camps. There are those who think that the freedom of the Press is sacrosanct, that it is a fundamental element of a working democracy and that governments tamper with it at their peril.

Others look down on the popular end of the market, sneer at the celebrity tittle-tattle and fret about ordinary lives turned upside down by the unseemly scramble for exclusives about soap stars, crime victims, adulterous MPs.

The latter group has been vociferous since the phone hacking scandal broke two years ago, its most visible and vocal manifestation being the Hacked Off campaign.

It would be foolish to suggest that the group did not have legitimate concerns. Supporters believe that the regulation regime being proposed by the Government is a reasonable response to excesses that have caused great distress to many people (and enriched many more, thanks to the vast coffers opened by the former News Corp to those who said their telephone conversations were intercepted).

This camp has no truck with  arguments about 300 years of Press freedom and  the importance of non-interference from Parliament. It does not accept that there is any risk down the line and is nauseated by what it sees as special pleading by the drunks who insist on supping in that notorious pub, the Last Chance Saloon.

Others look around the world and see how the unscrupulous and the tyrannical can break through the tiniest breach in walls protecting the Press to impose invidious restraints or shut down newspapers and radio and TV stations - all while being able to claim that they are acting within the law.

None of us wants to see that happen here. The Press regulator camp doubts that it ever will; the Press freedom camp wants to make bloody sure it never can.

There is unlikely to be any rapprochement between the two sides, and SubScribe isn't about to try to play matchmaker. But one train of thought has been in evidence over the past few days that can perhaps be challenged: the idea that the Press is asking for privileges not afforded to others.

There is a general assumption that reporters have levels of access to all areas of society denied to 'ordinary' people. This is true to an extent - but this is an informal arrangement. If the organisers of the Latitude Festival, the Chelsea Flower Show or the Cumbria ploughing championships make special provision for journalists, it is out of self-interest, not because they are required to do so.

They want the best possible publicity for their events, so they woo the Press with wifi, phone lines and other equipment they need to do their jobs, plus a few extras they think the reporters will appreciate - previews, free-flowing booze, an abundance of fruit, clean loos.

OK, reporters have become accustomed to this treatment and some can put on a diva act to rival any Pavarotti or Callas if all is not as they'd like. But there is no divine right to it.

There are Press benches in the courts, council chambers and Westminster because the reporters are there to represent the people. The journalists have no greater right than any other member of the public to attend, but officials make sure that the facilities are there to make everyone's lives run more smoothly. If armies of the public suddenly decided they wanted to see justice in action, the courts couldn't cope. That is why some - not all - journalists are given places at the front of the queue for big cases, but there is always still space for other members of the public.

When politicians brief lobby correspondents or businesses send out press releases, they are not doing it because they must, nor even in the interests of openness. They have an agenda and, to put it bluntly, they hope the reporter will feel sufficiently obliged by the generous treatment to give them a good write-up. The hosts are frequently disappointed.

And so to regulation. The views expressed in the tweets above are typical. But they are mistaken.

Few journalists would thank you for referring to their job as a profession; it is traditionally seen as a trade or perhaps a craft. Those at the upper end nationally or locally may mix professionally with Prime Ministers, mayors, film directors and head teachers, but only the most charismatic and congenial will be welcomed socially. Most of us know our place below the salt.

Doctors and lawyers are the true professionals who sit at the high table. They can kill people or cost them their liberty if they do their jobs badly, so it is quite right that they should be subject to formal regulation. They are also seen as being sufficiently responsible as to be allowed control of that regulation.

Contrary to what many believe, not all occupations are overseen by some vocational deity. Plumbers have to have specific certificates before they can fit a central heating boiler that could blow up a house if installed incorrectly, but there is no Ofplumb to keep watch on their general standards.

Anyone can stick up a postcard in the newsagent and advertise themselves as a bricklayer, carpenter or painter and decorator. There are trade bodies such as the Master Builders Federation, but membership is not obligatory and there are plenty out there willing to offer cash in hand for a cheaper job.

Anyone can lease a high street shop and open up as an estate agent, haberdasher, butcher or baker without having to sign up to any regulatory regime. They have to follow health and safety rules, of course, but everyone has to obey the general law. Factory owners have to adhere to safety legislation, but this is in place to protect their employees rather than their customers. I'm not aware of any Carmakers Complaints Commission.

Then there are the statutory regulators whose role is to make sure that the public isn't harmed or ripped off by various sectors.
Ofcom has made sure that our phone bills stay within four figures;
The rail authorities have made sure that the trains run on time, that tracks are safe and that fares are reasonable;
Ofsted ensures that our schools educate our children adequately;
Ofgen has saved us from soaring energy bills such as the 8% increase announced this morning at a time of 3% inflation and 0% income growth.

Howard Shipman was stopped before his tally of murdered patients could reach 300; a mere thousand or so emergency patients died at Stafford Hospital before the Healthcare Commission decided to investigate unusual mortality rates.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission and its predecessor the Police Complaints Authority have ensured that police don't kill innocent people on the streets or in cells. Rape victims and black youths are always treated with the utmost respect.
Indeed, the IPCC has been so successful in improving the behaviour of officers and the performance of forces over the past ten years that complaints were made against only a quarter of all officers in 2011-12. Not only that, but the total number of complaints has been contained to around 30,000 per year for the past five years.

The financial authorities are equally shining examples. The FSA and its predecessor the SIB, set up after the collapse of Barings bank in 1985, looked after the interests of the public so well that the compensation bill for mis-sold payment protection insurance may be limited to around £20bn.
Only Northern Rock and HBOS had to be rescued during the 2008 banking crisis, thanks to the success of the 'light touch' approach to banks' dangerous lending policies.

This was, of course, a beacon of open regulation. So open that the FSA declined to name 19 insurers censured for using unreliable figures to predict  how much people taking out endowment mortgages could expect when their policies matures. So open that it fired a whistleblower who dared to suggest that banks were making risky loans in 2007.

And so successful that the mis-selling of endowment policies in the 80s (cost £2.7bn) and private pensions in the 90s (£13bn) are almost behind us now, more than a quarter of a century later.

Hurrah, too, for the auditors and watchdogs who make sure that public projects come in on time and on budget; that computer technology is rolled out across Whitehall efficiently and economically. Nor should we forget the parliamentary standards and auditing authorities that make sure the public get the best value from its legislators.

With these checks in place, no MP would think of claiming for his duck house or a toilet brush for a second home. None would dream of seeking tax relief on a different house every year, nor of putting in an expenses claim for a hotel room after a late-night sitting when they had been sleeping soundly in their own bed at home.

And if, by chance, some newspaper acting in the public interest happened to expose cheating and corruption on a mammoth scale,  a new regulator would make sure that such a thing did not happen again - for at least a year or two.

The fact is that people in all walks of life behave badly.

Sometimes the bad behaviour - whether it is carelessness, cruelty or criminality - poisons the entire workplace so that it becomes a part of its culture. This happens even where there are regulators in place to police the trade, profession or calling, and regardless of whether the regulator is state-controlled, quangos, independent or in-house.

The only thing that can be guaranteed to change behaviour is the effective use of the laws of the land.

But still we keep faith with the notion that there should be some body in control. So, given the evidence above of the overwhelming success of our regulators, isn't it surprising that almost all of them have had to be replaced over the past decade or so?

Press watchdogs are no different. We've gone from the Press Council to the Press Complaints Commission, and both have been found wanting. So now we must have something new.

We know that the phone hackers were out of order. We didn't need the Leveson inquiry to tell us that. In considering a new regulatory regime, shouldn't we be looking at those overseeing other businesses and considering how effective they are?

Then we can make a judgment on whether it is worth risking the treasured principle of Press freedom in a gamble on a parliament-instigated regime that experience tells us is unlikely to work.

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