Lord Hunt is a man on a mission. Having already scrapped the PCC, he wants to create a new body “with teeth” and the power to fine news producers who cross the line. And he wants to get it moving right away.
“I want to hear what Lord Justice Leveson believes,” he said at last Friday’s Benn debate on media ethics in Bristol. “But I don’t think we should sit around and wait.”
The sudden leap into action from the Press Complaints Commission — to scuttle its own ship and get it rebuilt before the Leveson Inquiry concludes — has come as something of a surprise to those of us who have followed the PCC’s attitude towards criticism and change in the past.
Every year it has asked the public for ideas on suggestions on how it should change; every year it has carried on in almost exactly the same form, with complaints and suggestions largely put to one side. Yet now there’s a massive impetus for change.
“The PCC should wind down and a new body should be created. We need a new robust regulator with the powers the PCC has lacked, and to test the powers to see if it won’t happen again. I’m getting a lot of support and all I can say is I’m going to do my best,” said Lord Hunt.
He’s going to do his best, which is admirable indeed. One has to praise the way in which the former politician wants to rescue the free press from politicians. But he describes a world in which there are two tracks for press regulation to take: on one branch, the continuation of self-regulation, albeit more robust self-regulation; on the other, the spectre of state regulaton, of Bills and Acts and MPs deciding what the press should and shouldn’t print.
But why the haste, after so many years of the PCC deciding that everything was perfectly good with the structure of self-regulation as it was? Lord Hunt was asked by Thais Portilho-Shrimpton of the Hacked Off campaign if he had been asked by Lord Justice Leveson to help him with his inquiry, which was going on right now and costing £2million of taxpayers’ money.
“Lord Justice Leveson did encourge people to come up with proposals,” replied Lord Hunt. “There is a whole series of people who are thinking through this challenge. If I can help him to steer clear of state regulation of journalism I’ll do everything I can because that’s the one nightmare I have that someone somewhere will say this is too difficult and it must be taken to parliament. I don’t want politicians of any party deciding what can and cannot be written in our newspapers and magazines.”
Here is someone who used to work for and in parliament thinking that involving parliament with the regulation of newspapers is a “nightmare”. But it appeals to a powerful notion we have of freedom of speech (such that it exists in a country that will arrest, charge and convict people for updating Facebook statuses or writing tweets). It is freedom of speech for the powerful, the Fourth Estate, packaged and presented as freedom of speech for us all.
“The trouble with having a statutory backing is that you have to start off with a Bill,” said Lord Hunt, responding to a question from former Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiatt explaining that some would see the PCC’s sudden conversion to reform as spiking the guns of the Leveson report. “If you look at all the bills that have been introduced into parliament with regard to regulating the press, it’s your worst nightmare. I don’t want MPs anywhere near this, it’s up to you as journalists to work out the right regulatory structure.”
That word again, nightmare. The nightmare of democratically elected representatives creating legislation and lawmakers making laws. With politicians as untrusted and disliked as journalists, that might not be too far from the truth.
But there’s something else there too — it’s up to “journalists” to work out the right regulatory structure for themselves. Not readers of newspapers, or the public, who are the ones who end up in newspapers whether they like it or not, but journalists. If it’s understandable that MPs might fear the ramifications for a free press in its ability to catch them when they’re up to no good, what is the argument for excluding the public?
Well, not quite excluded. Lord Hunt invited the Bristol audience to inspect the two-page document for themselves and see if it was the right thing to do.
On regulation of the internet, he said he had met Paul Staines, so god knows what impression he has of bloggers now — as ever, it’s somewhat demoralising that political bloggers are represented by the kind of person who goes around in a stupid cartoon t-shirt repeatedly shouting “YOU ARE A FUCKING CUNT” in the faces people they don’t like.
For those of us unfortunate enough not to be Staines, our only way of having any say in the new PCC — which for the lack of a suitable interim title we should perhaps call the Not The PCC — is to look at the website and have our say. Lord Hunt would like our feedback, he says, to see if he’s “got it right”.
Well, it would be interesting to see how many changes do take place to the proposed changes to the PCC on the basis of public interaction — just as it was always interesting to see what changes happened to the PCC every year during the ‘consultation’ which took place. But there’s only one way to find out, I suppose: look at the document, write to Lord Hunt (at present it seems that snail-mail is the only option) and ask him to make the changes you see fit. Then see if he listens.