Dear journalists: grow up

Alex Andreou, who used to work for a regulator, responds to the Leveson report.

It feels strange to be writing an article about the art of writing articles. My only defence is that I am so new to this, that I do not yet consider myself part of the industry. I certainly do not have a good journalist’s skill or experience – qualities which I admire immensely. Nor do I work under the sort of pressure you do. With that in mind, you may choose to listen to me or dismiss me. I hope you listen.

I find the lack of self-reflection, which I have observed in the last 24 hours, nothing short of staggering. Please stop being victims. Take responsibility. You are the toughest, smartest bunch I have ever come across. Take your medicine.

Please stop saying “This excellent industry is being punished for the sins of the few.” My brief experience of your relatively small profession is that most people have worked in most environments with most people. I could link any two of you in two steps, through either a publication or a colleague. You may not all have engaged in questionable conduct, but to suggest you did not know what was going on is risible.

Please stop saying “We are not one homogenous group. We are a collection of individuals.” You seem to be able to get together, close ranks and pretty much all sing from the same hymn-sheet when threatened. Precisely the same qualities should have been (and can still be) used to put your house in order.

Please stop saying “This is the thin end of the wedge. Once legislation is introduced, it will grow.” You are possibly the best informed and, if not the most powerful, certainly the most vocal lobby in this country. It’s not like additional legislation will slip past you.

Please stop saying “There is already adequate protection in the law.” You know full well this protection is only available to those with money, time, knowhow and connections. I was having a beer with a buddy last night, who used to work in the tabloid press. He tells me that the single deciding factor in running or not running a less than well founded story is usually the subject’s financial ability to sue.

Please stop saying “We are special. We perform a vital public service. We should be protected.” The same applies to doctors, pharma companies, lawyers, police, farmers, the fire service, pilots. They are all, quite rightly, regulated. A badly put together article might leave me dissatisfied. A badly put together gas boiler can leave me dead. The imposition of professional standards is a fact of modern life.

Please stop saying “We have already changed. It will be different this time.” You sound like a recalcitrant abusive alcoholic begging his wife in hospital not to press charges.

The Leveson report did not arise out of someone getting up one fine morning and thinking “I know what I’ll do today; curtail the freedom of the press”. It sprung forth from an industry’s repeated and miserable failure to regulate itself. It is a direct result of an industry’s totally out-of-control behaviour.

In my many years work for a regulator, I never once sat across the table from an industry facing any kind of change in the rules that hasn’t claimed this would bring about the death of said industry and/or the demise of western civilization as we know it. In my experience, this is usually a knee-jerk reaction with little logic behind it.

One thing I can tell you with certainty is that the market players that come out best, are invariably the ones that are first to concede a change is needed, embrace it and work with the body seeking to regulate them to ensure it is well crafted.

This brings me to my most contentious and most positive point: The Leveson recommendations may be the best thing that has ever happened to this industry.

You constantly complain that you are under pressure from social media and blogs; that yours is a dying art. But if you do away with sub-editors so your copy is poor, if you refuse a system of accreditation and regulation, if you refuse to subscribe to strictly enforced professional standards, the only thing that will distinguish you from those bloggers and tweeters will become the smudge cheap ink leaves on my thumb.

Have you stopped to consider that the system proposed might, just might provide you with the unique selling point you have so longed for? In most other industries consumers are prepared to pay a premium for an approved kitemark which guarantees excellence. Knowing that a news story complies with strict professional standards and is procured ethically can produce immense reputational and financial benefits.

Most of all, please stop saying “This will change the face of the press in the UK.” That is precisely the objective. Embrace the change. Become better.

Finally, please stop using the word “Rubicon”. It was Murdoch’s codeword for the NewsCorp/BSkyB bid. And I don’t think you want to go there.

David Cameron: the ball is in his court now. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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