Knocking press industry heads together

The latest on Leveson.

One man who hasn’t had much time to enjoy the Olympics is press inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson.

And as he reviews the stupendous amount of evidence that his wide-ranging inquiry has compiled, one question will weigh most heavily on his mind. Does he give the industry one last chance to set its own house in order by agreeing to the Pressbof plan for PCC2? Or does he set himself against the collective might of the press owners, ignore their painstakingly worked out  and go his own way.

My hunch is that, as is often the way with judges in civil cases, he will find a way to knock the heads together of the press industry and its detractors in order to come up with a compromise arrangement which all can sign up to.

Pressbof’s plan for PCC2 is mainly concerned with finding ways to lock publishers into membership of a new regulator by controlling press cards,
access to Press Association copy and major advertising. It nods its head to being a more independent body by giving public members the majority on the new complaints arm. But ultimately it would remain a body funded and governed by the industry.
While the owners have come a long way, it does not seem to have occurred to them to include any voices from outside their number in the reform process.

Consultation was confined chiefly to the publishers themselves and the top national editors. Not only did they not involve the ‘victims of the press’ in their deliberations, few editors from outside the top tier of the industry were involved and no effort at all was made to consult ordinary journalists at the coalface.

While PCC2 may have much to recommend it, I can’t see Lord Justice Leveson going with a plan which represents such a narrow group of opinions and interests.

There is a danger that a body dominated by owners and editors will fail to pick up on the problems which led to the hacking scandal.
A look at the list of names charged with in the great hacking ‘conspiracy’ – from former chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks down – suggests that this was not a problem confined to a few rogue foot soldiers.

My hope is that the owners hold their noses and engage with the likes of the NUJ and the Chartered Institute of Journalists to come up with a new system which involves all parts of the industry.

This could simply involve including a ‘conscience clause’ in journalists’ contracts, some provision for and protection of whistleblowers  and ensuring there is a journalists’ representative on the new complaints body.

Pressbof also needs to come up with a way to ensure that the new regulator is genuinely independent of the owners to the extent that, if necessary, it can turn on them.

A regulator set up to protect press freedom should do more than just ensure that erring journalists are punished for their mistakes. It needs to ensure that honest journalists are protected from the pressures brought by unscrupulous owners.

Pressbof needs to carry out a genuine public consultation now and get cracking soon on PCC3 - otherwise it will only have itself to blame when a state-backed regulation system is imposed on us all.

This story first appeared in Press Gazette

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Flickr/Nic Gould
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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. And the BBC’s Today programme put the allegations to Communities & Local Government Secretary Greg Clark this morning. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.