As Lord Leveson prepares to produce his report, those with the most to lose by raising standards within the press are starting their campaign to rubbish his recommendations, said Professor Chris Frost, the chair of the NUJ Ethics council.
David Cameron has already had his ears burned by a number of national paper editors warning him off agreeing to new press regulatory body whose independence from the industry and government is guaranteed by statute.
Almost everyone believes there needs to be a change in the regulatory system and that the Press Complaints Commission is not fit for purpose but the big divide seems to be about how we give the regulator the authority to enforce its writ.
Those who think that self-regulation is still the way to go despite more than 50 years of failing regulation often accuse opponents of wanting state regulation with its implications of government control and censorship. So, to fend off the cheap calls of Zimbabwe, it’s important to understand what state regulation is and why those trying to introduce higher standards of journalism are often accused of wanting it.
State regulation according to Professor Tim Luckhurst, in a pamphlet issued on behalf of the employers-sponsored Free Press Network, is a “constitutional absurdity: parliamentary scrutiny of a body the electorate depends upon to scrutinise parliament”. He goes on to say that statutory underpinning would be a “false compromise” because “Any state involvement in the regulation of newspapers would restrict their capacity to play their historic role as a bulwark of our fundamental freedoms.”
Of course many editors and proprietors are bound to feel uncomfortable about stronger regulation after learning so brutally that long-standing critics of the present system of regulation, including the National Union of Journalists, were right. It’s not surprising that they should lash out and accuse any attempt to reform as an unacceptable attack on press freedom. But of course the regulation debate is far more nuanced than these crude attacks allow.
Pressbof (the Press Standards Board of Finance), for instance, has already identified a civil law approach to regulation, its major flaw being that there is no way to oblige all the press to join: the so-called Desmond conundrum, whereby publications can opt out.
Statutory underpinning of independent regulation is another option. This allows parliament (democratically elected) to decide the extent of regulation, but leaves it to an independent regulator to enforce it with statutory authority to apply its code to publishers of a certain size.
True state regulation, though, is where parliament would decide the extent of regulation but then leave the law to be applied by the courts or press tribunals.
The NUJ believes that there are two key points to be included in any future regulatory system: it must be there to protect free expression and a free press, this means ensuring good standards of journalism, and its authority and ability to regulate must be able to cover all commercially driven press.
The National Union of Journalists wants an independent co-regulator that would have authority over all commercial media over a certain size underpinned by statute. It would have a responsibility to uphold press freedom, draw up an ethical code, take complaints from all comers and offer a right of reply. It would be able to punish those who breached standards recklessly or repeatedly with a system of fines or published apologies/corrections. The body would include representatives of proprietors, editors, journalists and the public.
Whilst a system with statutory underpinning would then have legal authority over publications to uphold standards it would also allow newspapers that felt they were unfairly treated to argue or appeal decisions. This is not something that happens in a self-regulatory system. There standards have to be set low enough to ensure appeals will never happen.
Most of the complaints work in the NUJ’s system would be carried out by an ombudsman. The regulatory board would be involved in campaign work and dealing with complaints likely to attract a penalty or that raise issues of principle. The body must be able to take complaints from all and at no cost to the complainant and should be able to insist on the publication of rights of reply or apologies.
We need firmer regulation from a body that is there to protect press freedom, press standards and ethics by listening to the public.
This does not mean state regulation of the sort Luckhurst fears but an independent regulator that upholds press freedom, represents the concerns of the public and holds newspapers that abuse their power to account. Now what’s wrong with that?
Professor Chris Frost is head of journalism at Liverpool John Moores University and head of the NUJ’s Ethics Council