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

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.