How do we stop a new press regulator "going native"?

Lessons from the failings of the PCC.

If there was any question left that the British media establishment has failed to grasp the enormity of the issues raised by the hacking scandal this should have been dispelled by Presbof’s comprehensive plan for a new regulator.

There are some massive changes proposed in the new document which, if Presbof is allowed to proceed with them, will have huge ramifications for all professional journalists in the UK.

It now remains to be seen whether Lord Justice Leveson can be persuaded that the poachers really can turn gamekeepers and whether those who were ultimately responsible for the failings of the PCC are the right people to come up with a new system.

My view is that the document goes some way to addressing the failings of the PCC – particularly with its new powers to investigate major failings and ensure the industry learns the lessons of disasters like phone-hacking and the reporting of the McCann and Jefferies cases.

But there are also some  flaws in their proposals.

The document has come about as a result of private meetings between an elite group of individuals – namely the major press owners. There has been no public consultation and no effort event to canvas the views of ordinary journalists. Presbof clearly believes that he who pays the piper calls the tune – the owners are prepared to fund the £2.25m running costs of the new regulator and the no-doubt enormous set-up costs without seeking help from the State. But I doubt whether Leveson will wear a new system which remains pretty well controlled by the press owners.

The regulator’s board would comprise two public appointees, an “independent” chair and two Presbof appointees. The owners would also control the code committee by appointing the majority of editors to it and they would appoint five of the 13-member adjudications panel.

With such a large number of appointees to the regulator controlled by the owners and drawn from a small pool of elite journalists, is the new regulator really going to be able to ensure it doesn’t “go native” as has apparently been the case with the PCC?

The new regulator proposes retaining the existing PCC system for dealing with complaints – with the major sanction remaining the publication of a critical adjudication. The document does not state whether front page mistakes should now warrant front-page apologies. But I suspect for this aspect of the plan to fly that will have to be the case.

In cases of extreme wrongdoing the new regulator will be able to commission independent three-person inquiries comprising an industry representative and two independent figures. The strict terms of the contract that members of the body will sign up to should ensure compliance with these inquiries. The strictest censure will be a fine of up to one per cent of turnover to a maximum of £1m.

This detail must betray the fact that the likes of Telegraph Media Group and Associated Newspapers call the shots at Presbof. Why should massive publishers be insulated from the one per cent rule by virtue of the £1m maximum? £1m legal cases are not unusual for the big Fleet Street players.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Presbof that the views of ordinary journalists on the shop floor need to be incorporated into their thinking. To his credit PCC chairman Lord Hunt, whose proposals are subtly different, has suggested that they should via some sort of whistleblowers’ system.

At the heart of the hacking scandal, the treatment of the McCanns and the Jefferies case were systematic failings in the industry which go right to the top. At the News of the World there was a clearly a culture of ‘get the story at whatever the cost’ which emanated from Rupert Murdoch down through the senior executives to editors and journalists on the ground.

If Fleet Street is to change its culture, and place ethics above profits and scoops, the owners need to open up this process and accept that everyone in this country has a stake in the success of the press and the maintenance of journalistic standards – not just those who bank the profits. They do this to an extent via the public appointees but I’d argue that a broader range of industry voices needs to be heard as well.

The most dramatic changes proposed by Presbof are to lock publishers into the new system by controlling access to press cards, PA and major advertising. This solves the Desmond question while allowing mavericks like Private Eye to go their own way.

What follows now will be a high stakes game of poker. Presbof has shown its hand. Leveson cannot ignore the huge amount of work and thought that has gone into this offer of reform from the industry. But neither can he ignore the many other voices he has heard over the course of his huge inquiry. There is nothing in the Presbof proposals, for instance, to tackle the widespread concerns about allegations Rupert Murdoch has traded media power for political influence.

It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out in October when Lord Justice Leveson puts forward his proposals and Parliament is then left holding the casting vote.

This article originally appeared in Press Gazette.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle