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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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