Leveson must mark the beginning of change, not the end

We need a new platform-neutral regulator that no longer treats newspapers, broadcasters and websites as if they live in discrete little boxes.

Could the backdrop for publication of the Leveson report this week be worse? A polarised debate between press and campaigners; serious political divisions; and another media crisis - this time at the BBC - eroding public trust even further.

Lord Justice Leveson must take a bleak view of the prospects for building consensus around his recommendations. But there is a bigger danger and the Leveson report will, at best, address only some of the issues confronting Britain’s media. Economically, our traditional media is under severe strain. Circulations for print publications are falling, advertising revenues migrating online and digital revenues growing at only a snail’s pace for the creators of traditional print and television content. According to media regulator, Ofcom, the only growth in readership for our national newspapers is online, and that is currently not where the money is. The so-called print to digital "profit destruction ratio" could be as much as 25:1. 

In a report published by the IPPR today, I argue that once they have taken delivery of the Leveson report, our politicians will need to look much more broadly at the prospects for growth in our media sector.  Leveson should mark the beginning of the process of change, not the end. We need to take a new approach to media regulation. One which is no longer treats newspapers, broadcasters and online services as if they live in discrete little boxes. That’s not where consumers are today. And it certainly won’t be where consumers are by the time a new regulatory regime comes into force.

True, many people remain excluded from the digital revolution, but more than half of households today have three or more internet enabled devices. According to Ofcom, when people buy an iPad or other tablet device, 25 per cent of people say they read a paper copy of a newspaper less often. A new approach should offer more freedom for media companies to innovate and develop new business models and at the same time deliver more consistent standards across the board. 

To do this, we can build on our current system of independent regulators, but shift the focus on to content rather than delivery methods. So, for example, one regulator to deal with news publishing on all platforms, one to deal with broadcast news content, with its special requirement to maintain impartiality, one to deal with general non-news content across all platforms, broadcast and on demand. Each body would involve the industry and lay representatives, including consumers in developing standards and monitoring and enforcing compliance. But they must have teeth, and it must be a requirement for all qualifying organisations to take part. For that you need a statutory backstop.  

Independent and statutory regulation are not mutually exclusive. Advertising and on demand programming have both. ITV is completely under the umbrella of statutory regulation, but that didn’t stop the broadcaster investigating and breaking the Savile story. The backstop role that Ofcom performs for some sectors should be extended to all media. Stepping back from day to day regulation of content would enable Ofcom to take a broader view, helping to develop consistent standards across media on matters such as the protection of privacy and the public interest. 

A new News Publishing Authority would be created as part of this framework as a replacement for the PCC. It would be platform neutral, dealing with print and online services. It would also deal with news video, ending the current risk that newspapers could fall under a new regulator if they develop opinionated TV-like content for distribution online and on demand. Only news publishers over certain size should be required to sign up, and the new body would continue to perform many of the current functions of the PCC, including handling complaints, offering pre-publication advice to complainants and giving guidance to editors. It should also involve industry as well as lay representation, as now. But it must have recourse to Ofcom’s back-stop powers when needed: to compel membership; arbitrate effectively; and apply effective sanctions. 

The public want stricter regulation and the key is to develop a system that is as sensitive to press freedom and the future economic viability of our media as it is possible to be. And that is what this solution proposes. Assessments of media plurality should become platform neutral too. Judgements on concentrations of power and influence should be taken using a range of measures, with consideration given to the continuing viability of established titles and media groups. 

Setting hard ownership limits within particular media segments – like the printed press – may be politically attractive, but if the result is simply the closure of unprofitable newspaper titles, then what does that achieve for plurality and consumer choice? After the fiasco over News Corp's attempted takeover of BSkyB, the so-called quasi-judicial role for the Secretary of State should be abolished too, with Ofcom taking responsibility for media competition and plurality issues with enhanced accountability to Parliament. The UK benefits from one of the most vibrant and diverse media markets in the world. Alongside a lively free press and an abundance of new media players, we have superb public service broadcasters. In the new world, as all traditional media comes under strain, our broadcasters need more security over their long term status and funding. In the case of the publicly-funded BBC this should come with a greater external scrutiny, continuing to work alongside the BBC Trust. 

Without a new regulatory settlement, in a few years time the rich media mix the UK enjoys today of old and new, serious and frivolous, impartial and opinionated could disappear. A traditional industry that is already struggling economically will be hamstrung and unable to compete with new media players. There’ll be no shortage of choice, and aggregation software will help us find it. But will it be worth reading or watching? Leveson will be important. But let’s not get sidetracked into yesterday’s arguments about whether or not a "dab of statute" signals the death knell for free and investigative journalism. There are bigger risks and they require a broader view and a more comprehensive solution. 

Nigel Warner is a former government media policy adviser and author of Life after Leveson, published today by the IPPR

Hugh Grant, one of those leading calls for stricter press regulation, meets David Cameron during last year's Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nigel Warner is a former government media policy adviser and an associate fellow at the IPPR.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser