For those now re-considering the Royal Charter agreed in the cross-party talks in March, University of Westminster’s Steven Barnett recalls the lessons of the Calcutt Review and the formation of the PCC.
We have been here before. Delays, legal manoeuvres, and desperate scaremongering as the national press tries to stave off even the mildest form of accountability.
Self-serving politicians desperate to suppress the truth? Try this: “One of the greatest canards of the past few years has been that ‘ordinary’ people need privacy laws to protect them from a rapacious Press. This mantra is chanted incessantly by politicians when in fact what they really want is protection for themselves.” (Daily Mail, 30 July, 1993).
Terrifying visions of North Korean style Orwellian censorship? Try this: “The prospect of a grey body of censors fining newspapers and ordering editors to appear before it deserves every comparison with Ceausescu’s Romania or Verwoerd’s South Africa – or indeed Orwell’s Big Brother.” (Mail on Sunday, 24 June 1990).
Courageous newspapers standing up for transparency against the forces of darkness and conspiracy? Try this: “The truth is that the establishment would like to shackle the press. Those in positions of power want to withhold and restrict information about them which the public has a right to know.” (Today newspaper – now defunct, prop. Rupert Murdoch, 30 July 1993).
If these excerpts from newspaper editorials over 20 years ago sound familiar, so is the context. During the 1980s, newspapers had (again) been guilty of flagrant breaches of ethical standards, wilful distortion of the truth, and gross intrusions into private lives. Then, it was the hounding of television presenter Russell Harty as he lay dying in his hospital bed, the concocted murders during a Strangeways prison riot, the one million pound libel settlement to Elton John from the Sun, the same paper’s grossly insensitive and inaccurate reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy, and multiple invasions into the private lives of ordinary people and the Royal Family.
Galvanised into action both by public revulsion and a series of private members’ bills on Privacy and Right to Reply, the government announced in April 1989 a review of press regulation under Sir David Calcutt.
Proprietors and editors prostrated themselves before Calcutt, conceded that on occasion they might have overstepped the mark, but pleaded for one more chance to get self-regulation right. After much deliberation, the Calcutt committee published its report in June 1990 and recommended a new self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission, which should be “authoritative, independent, and impartial”.
In the House of Commons, the Home Secretary David Waddington stated categorically that Calcutt’s report was “positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation” and that failure to respond would oblige the government to set up a statutory regime. Just as his minister, David Mellor, had famously warned that the popular press was “drinking in the last chance saloon”.
And so the PCC was born in January 1991, definitively and unconditionally the last chance for self-regulation. Newspapers bobbed and weaved, professing to implement Calcutt, but quietly discarding the parts they didn’t like and interpreting “independent” with – to put it politely – a degree of flexibility. They made sure that the industry controlled the regulator, the code, and the sanctions (sounds familiar?).
Calcutt himself wasn’t fooled by the manoeuvring. After 18 months, he was asked to review the new system and in January 1993 published a damning – and prescient – report. He was unequivocal:
“[The PCC] is not the truly independent body which it should be. As constituted, it is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry.”
By then, the political climate had changed. The Prime Minister, John Major, commanded a very small majority and his own authority was under threat. The PCC purported to raise its game, and political expediency dictated inaction: “do nothing” became the preferred option, and Calcutt was kicked into the long grass.
Within five years, as Tony Blair reminded us in his Leveson evidence, this body designed as an independent complaints mechanism for victims of press abuse was brazen enough to lobby against section eight of the Human Rights Act which protects the individual’s right to privacy!
Major himself was forthright in his evidence to Leveson, calling Calcutt and its aftermath a “missed opportunity”. He went further: “If these changes had been made, I don’t think many of the things that subsequently happened would have happened.” David Cameron was quick to agree, telling Leveson: “I thought John Major’s evidence about what went wrong with the Calcutt process and the outcome of that in not being able to deliver the changes was instructive, and we have to do better.”
And now, it seems, Cameron has personally intervened to delay the cross-party Charter yet again. Meanwhile, the press are in full-throated scaremongering mode, orchestrating precisely the kind of lobby which undermined Calcutt 20 years ago: the same menacing threats about 300 years of press freedom, the same tired cries about self-interested politicians, the same vacuous and absurd claims to be delivering “the toughest press regulatory regime anywhere in the free world”. Just as they did 20 years ago, immensely powerful and self-interested corporations are masquerading as guardians of the public good.
There is little doubt now, except in the minds of a few delusional old-timers, that the PCC was manipulated by the industry and failed catastrophically. If we go down that route again, the combination of ferocious competition within the national newspaper market and declining circulations – exacerbated by a newsroom culture which remains trenchantly unapologetic about past excesses – will guarantee yet more victims of press mistreatment. If David Cameron skewers the cross-party Charter, we can be absolutely certain that the cycle of abuse will continue.
Parliament has delivered its verdict, with overwhelming support from the public, and it’s now up to Cameron to hold his nerve. This might also be the moment for our Prime Minister to recall his own words to the Inquiry, reflecting on the history of press regulation reform: “there are dangers to the public interest if politicians fail to set their own agenda rather than merely respond to media campaigns…. . The electorate are capable of seeing through politicians who are weak in the face of pressure, including me”.
Yes, Prime Minister…..
This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post UK blog on 9 October and is re-posted with permission and thanks. This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Barnett seems to think that owning a newspaper is a privilege that comes with ‘responsibilities’. It is not. The privately owned press does not have to justify its actions to anyone. It does not have uphold standards, be impartial, or refrain from hypocrisy. It has no responsibility to politicians. If you don’t like their stuff don’t buy it, but don’t decide for me what I can or cannot read.
“The privately owned press does not have to justify its actions to anyone. It does not have uphold standards, be impartial, or refrain from hypocrisy.”
Conservatives and the industry sure love to parade freedom of speech as a way to derail discussion of ethical standards and privacy. Roy, you might not personally think that owning a newspaper is a privilege, but certain responsibilities are required of the media in order for society to function properly, including facilitating democratic access to information, supporting an informed citizenry, and a healthy public sphere for debate. If left unchecked, it can also be used to very destructive effect, as the Leveson Inquiry clearly pointed out.
Being impartial (editorializing) is not the same as “willful distortion of the truth”. You are free to engage in all the hypocrisy you like. What is not tolerable, however, and does indeed require stricter standards, is the careless breach of privacy that the press has shown itself to be inclined to engage in, and the actual lives that have been negatively affected as a result.
No one is deciding what you can or cannot read. We are simply trying to hold accountable the corporations that abuse their position in the industry.
“…certain responsibilities are required of the media in order for society to function properly, including facilitating democratic access to information, supporting an informed citizenry, and a healthy public sphere for debate. “
No such ‘responsibilities’ exist – you’ve made them up. The newspapers are not there to inform the public or to help society function – they are private enterprises and what they write is none of the government’s business. If you feel that your usual newspaper is failing you in these areas then don’t buy it. Left wingers hate this concept, presumably because newspapers such as The Daily Mail and Telegraph vastly outsell the Guardian. If the Guardian was the best-selling newspaper then the Left would be against regulation. The BBC is supposed to be impartial by law but has a left-wing slant that even its own people admit. If it was right-leaning then the Left would want the license fee scrapped.
“What is not tolerable, however, and does indeed require stricter standards, is the careless breach of privacy that the press has shown itself to be inclined to engage in, and the actual lives that have been negatively affected as a result.”
We already have existing laws that need to be more rigorously enforced. These laws apply to everyone – not just the press. They do not require government press regulation.
“No one is deciding what you can or cannot read.”
Good, then there’s no need for regulation.
We are simply trying to hold accountable the corporations that abuse their position in the industry.”
They are not ‘accountable’ to you, me or anyone else. They are already subject to the existing laws that affect us all. If people want to hold them ‘accountable’ then they should do it by not subsidising them.
They are accountable (or should be) to their own professional codes of conduct – the Editors’ Code and the NUJ Code. Where these codes fail, as in the case of abuse of other people’s rights to privacy, there needs to be a system of redress for these other people. This is not in the least difficult to understand. Every profession has such systems; we do in higher education – student appeal processes, external examiners’ scrutiny etc. Not a problem. What’s the issue with newspapers? They seem completely incapable of organising themselves and responding to concerned readers and external critics in a rational, professional manner. Hence Leveson. It’s not just a question of people not buying newspapers – it’s also a question of decent people not wanting to work in them, because there appears to be little professional integrity in abusive cultures such as that recently revealed in the Daily Mail, and no protection for individual journalists who want to behave with integrity. I see this as a major problem for journalism, and without respect and trust from the public, the role it likes to claim for itself as a fourth estate, holding power to account (if only..), disappears.That’s where we are at the moment. (See recent YouGov poll).
“They are accountable (or should be) to their own professional codes of conduct – the Editors’ Code and the NUJ Code.”
Then that’s between the journalist and the NUJ – it has nothing to do with politicians. If a journalist is ostracised by the NUJ for poor conduct then the journalist still has the right to publish work, just like any other citizen. If the press defames someone then they can be sued. The NUJ itself shows left wing bias, encouraging journalists to be soft on pro-immigration arguments in its guidelines. Who will regulate the NUJ?
“Every profession has such systems; we do in higher education – student appeal processes, external examiners’ scrutiny etc. Not a problem. What’s the issue with newspapers?”
Because printing news is a right, not a privilege handed out by governments to a few ‘responsible’ individuals. To work as a doctor, lawyer or airline pilot is not a right and a certain level of conduct is required by law. Anyone, however, can print a newspaper without government imposed conditions which is exactly how it should be.
“They seem completely incapable of organising themselves and responding to concerned readers and external critics in a rational, professional manner.”
They have every right to act this way just as you are free to not subsidise their work. They do not have to meet a ‘standard’ any higher than a religious nut handing out leaflets warning of the coming apocalypse. They do not have to answer to you, me or anyone else. This is how free societies work and the alternative is always far, far worse.
“It’s not just a question of people not buying newspapers – it’s also a question of decent people not wanting to work in them, because there appears to be little professional integrity in abusive cultures”
Then decent people should work elsewhere if they don’t like the standard of reporting. If they are being abused then they have the same rights of redress as in any other workplace.
“I see this as a major problem for journalism, and without respect and trust from the public, the role it likes to claim for itself as a fourth estate, holding power to account (if only..), disappears.”
Allowing politicians to regulate the press will only make it harder to hold power to account – not easier. You may want the press to behave in the way you describe but it does not have to do so. If the public is losing faith in the media then they should stop subsiding that sort of behaviour. I think that deep down most journalists know this. They are suspending rational thought for an emotionally charged, ‘get Murdoch’ campaign and they’re willing to sacrifice our basic freedoms to do it.
The main reason that the Left is demanding regulation of the media is purely political. They simply cannot stand the Mail and Telegraph outselling the Guardian by such a large margin. This is why the Left regularly turns a blind eye to left-wing bias at the BBC (which is obliged by law to be impartial) but gets outraged at the private Right-wing press exercising its right to print what it likes.