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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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.