Trust me, I’m a journalist!

Tomorrow (Wednesday), the Church and Media Network will hold a day-conference in London exploring issues of trust in the media. It’s an important subject and could not be more topical.

The conference blurb says: “It has been a traumatic period for everyone who works in media, with a constant stream of stories in which the industry itself is the villain. For eight painful months the Leveson Inquiry brought journalistic malpractice into public focus – but almost a year after the publication of the report the prospect of a new regulatory mechanism seems as far away as ever. Meanwhile the BBC has been scarred by revelations of historic abuse, failed projects and massive payoffs to departing executives.

All of this comes at a time when the government is imposing detailed and costly regulation on the media using the Privy Council. The government says that this avoids political interference; but you can’t get more political interference than a “solution” imposed on an industry by politicians without the consent of that industry or the benefit of full parliamentary scrutiny.

I hear what you’re saying. And I’ve heard what you’ve been saying for the past couple of years: something needs to be done to curb the worst excesses of the press and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has proved itself to be worse than useless.

Actually, I agree fully on the first count and partially on the second.

The worst excesses of certain sections of Fleet Street were indeed terrible and something should have been done to stop it. But what? Well, most of what people are complaining about, including phone hacking and using deception to obtain personal data unlawfully, were just that – unlawful. The police could, and should have taken action. The Information Commissioner should have taken action. Neither did. Neither have been held to account.

Instead, the government is imposing at least eight – yes, eight – new bodies to control the press:

  1. The Recognition Body
  2. The Board of the Recognition Body
  3. The Recognition Body’s independent appointments body
  4. The Regulator (or, potentially, more than one regulator)
  5. The Board of the Regulator
  6. The Regulator’s independent appointments body
  7. The Regulator’s Code Committee
  8. The Regulator’s Arbitration Body

All this is going to cost – not least because members of the Recognition Body can receive remuneration; and the Body can also employ staff, seek legal advice and, well, they have an un-capped ability to spend money.

Who pays the bills? You do, to start with, as the Charter requires the Treasury to fund the Recognition Body for the first three years. Thereafter it will be funded by fees charged to the Regulator who will pass those fees onto newspapers. It’s not like newspapers aren’t closing down for lack of funds already. The Treasury will be required to fund any shortfall of the Recognition Body in perpetuity.

Who benefits? Well, apart from the new members and staff of the new Recognition Body, nobody. In theory a person wronged by a newspaper can use the new regulator’s arbitration process and win a claim against a newspaper. But this is a legal process, albeit cheaper than the courts, and the parties may wish to use solicitors or barristers to prepare their case and represent them at any arbitration tribunal hearing; so they’ve already lost out in having to pay costs for legal advice. In contrast the Press Complaints Commission is free and simple to use and does not require the use of lawyers.

But if a publisher loses a claim brought against it at the arbitration tribunal it can appeal to the courts under the provisions of the Arbitration Act 1996. And it is likely to do so – not because they don’t want to pay out money; but because if they stand by their story they will want to protect the integrity and reputation of their journalists and the newspaper. Today, a person can complain to the PCC with no risk of having to pay any costs or get involved in litigation. Under the Royal Charter they could find themselves unwittingly becoming a party to an appeal at the High Court or Court of Appeal.

The PCC cannot be blamed for not taking action against phone hacking. As I’ve said, that was the job of the police. Nor can it be blamed for not taking action against unlawful data gathering. That was the job of the Information Commissioner. It is not the job of a self-regulatory body today – nor will it be the job of a regulator under the Royal Charter – to investigate crime or unlawful activity.

The biggest complaint about the PCC is that it was too conciliatory. It always attempted to reach an agreed settlement between complainants and the newspaper industry. The problem is that many complainants don’t want a negotiated settlement. They want the newspaper to be given a quick kick in the never regions. The new regulator will offer this as a solution; but at what cost? The financial costs will be significant; but the real cost could be to limit the freedom of the press to hold the powerful to account.

My blog posts are like the number seven bus – you’ve waited ages for one to come along and now they’re going to come in quick succession. In my next post, later this evening, I will reveal information obtained using the Freedom of Information Act that shows the lengths that the government-owned Student Loans Company went to in order to silence legitimate reporting of a matter of genuine concern; involving the explicit agreement of a government department for a misleading press release to be issued with an empty threat of legal action.

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