In Response to Roy Greenslade’s BJR Article

The atmosphere surrounding the Leveson Inquiry is, quite understandably, somewhat febrile and apprehensive. Uncertainty around the potential upheavals to regulation of the press is prompting speculation evoking outcomes ranging from the extremes of optimistic post-Murdoch utopianism to the spectre of state-controlled journalism. At the same time the outpouring of informed opinion and commentary has shone a spotlight on the workings of journalism, citizens and politics in Britain, and a number of proposed solutions to the failings of press regulation, many of which have been put to the Inquiry team to inform their deliberations. As the date of publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations draws every closer, speculation on the eventual outcome of press reform is on the increase.

In the latest edition of the British Journalism Review, Roy Greenslade – Professor of Journalism at City University and influential media commentator – provides an insightful summary of the historical and political context of previous attempts at reform, drawing parallels with the failure of Sir David Calcutt’s recommendations put forward in his Review of Press Self-Regulation, and the present government’s reluctance to antagonise the press. His overarching conclusion is that history will repeat itself, with politicians overwhelmingly likely to pursue their self-interest and avoid outright confrontation with the press over statutory regulation.

However, in one section of his article, Professor Greenslade draws conclusions from the Media Standards Trust’s submissions to the Leveson Inquiry that are misleading regarding the position the Trust takes on the best form of press regulation in future and to the Lord Hunt/Lord Black contract-based self-regulation proposal. On this basis it may be helpful to clarify the position of the Media Standards Trust.

The section reads as follows:

“Despite the widespread criticism of self-regulation aired by politicians, media academics and the Media Standards Trust (MST), it is noticeable that the Black-Hunt initiative – or some form of it – is virtually the only game in town. The unequivocal support for “the principle of press self-regulation” advocated by the MST in an under-reported sixth submission to the Leveson inquiry is a tacit acceptance that the contract plan might work. It was significant that the Trust included the results of an opinion poll showing that the public is overwhelmingly against state involvement.”

• The “under-reported sixth submission” of the MST is in fact a submission to the 2010 independent review of the PCC, not a submission directly to the Leveson Inquiry. It accordingly made recommendations for reform of the existing system, not a proposal for a new system entirely. The 2012 submission to Leveson – “A Free and Accountable Media” – does this, and understandably draws different conclusions.

• The conclusion of the 2010 report regarding contracts is still valid if predicated on the assumption that voluntary self-regulation is the only credible approach to regulating non-broadcast journalism. The events of the intervening two years have demonstrated that such voluntary self-regulation has failed.

• He notes that the Trust articulated its strong support for “the principle of self-regulation” in the 2010 report – this is absolutely true, and is clearly stated in the first sentence of the report. The sentence does, however, continue “provided a viable model can be found for such regulation to be effective” (p2). The 2012 report could not be more specific in articulating the Trust’s belief – on the basis of thorough research including consultation with practitioners and experts in the field of contract law – that the Hunt / Black plan would not be sufficiently effective to achieve the outcomes that regulatory reform should be aiming at. This is made clear on page 38 of the 2012 submission.

• It is hard to see how this amounts to a “tacit acceptance that the contract plan might work”. Instead, it is a demonstration that it will be unable to sufficiently reform press regulation and to deal with the systemic problems of the previous system. This is clearly dealt with in an entire section of the 2012 report with the title “Why self-regulation underpinned by commercial contracts is not sufficient” (pp35-38).

• Professor Greenslade’s citation of the opinion polling from the 2010 report “showing that the public is overwhelmingly against state involvement” is also not right. It must be assumed, since it is not formally cited, that he is referring to the results of Q1 on p41 of the 2010 questionnaire, which asked respondents “Journalists writing articles for British newspapers abide by a code of practice. Who do you consider to be the best body to oversee this code of practice?” It requires a conceptual leap to link this question to the public’s position on state involvement in press regulation as a whole, but results were as follows: Only 17% of respondents favoured “a regulatory body set up by the British government”, but this can be compared with the 8% in favour of “a newspaper industry complaints body – set up and run by the newspaper industry”. An overwhelming 52% favoured “an independent self-regulatory body set up and run by those independent of the newspaper industry”. This is in complete accordance with the proposed model outlined in the MST’s 2012 report.

Professor Greenslade is absolutely right to raise concerns that a lack of political will and government fears of a hostile press in a tricky political context may torpedo the adoption of Leveson’s proposals (whatever they may be), but we should be equally wary of prominent journalists adopting the fatalistic position that the government’s response to Leveson’s report is effectively a foregone conclusion, particularly when this involves the maintenance of the status quo.