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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories