On Ed Miliband’s call for an inquiry into press abuses

When political leaders start calling for press reform it’s time for the press to wake up and smell the coffee.

Ed Miliband said, in an interview with The Guardian:

“I think there does need to be a review [of newspaper regulation and practice] after the police inquiries have been completed and any criminal cases that flow from it. I think it is in the interests of protecting the reputation of the British press that these matters should not simply be left to rest, and lessons have to be learned.”

He is right to call for a review, though it is important other leading politicians join him. But even more importantly, other members of the press need to take seriously these criticisms of the current system and calls for reform. Alan Rusbridger and Lionel Barber have already done so. Now it’s time for other editors to do the same.

For more than two years the Media Standards Trust has been calling for radical reform of the current system of press self-regulation. As has become increasingly clear, the current system does not have the remit, the resources, or the sanctions to deal with the scandals that have dogged the press over the past decade.

There are four main areas where the current system needs reform:

Acting in the public interest, as well as on behalf of individual complainants

At the moment the PCC mediates on behalf of specific complainants – normally those directly referenced in a news article. This is a valuable service but is quite different from regulating in the public interest. Were it to do the latter it would be able to act in cases like phone hacking and coverage of the McCanns. In other words, perform a more similar function to other regulators.

Adequate sanctions

An upheld adjudication is not an adequate sanction, no matter how many times the editor of the Daily Mail may say it is. It does not offer adequate redress, it does not lead to firings or resignations, it does not act as a precedent to prevent future malpractice, and it certainly does not provide a means by which to deal with phone hacking or other privacy intrusions.

Investigatory powers

The PCC conducted two ‘investigations’ into phone hacking in 2007 and 2009. Both these investigations found no evidence that phone hacking went further than ‘one rogue reporter’. The second criticised the Guardian for over dramatizing the story. Yet these ‘investigations’ were not investigations in the way most people would understand them. They appeared to involve little more than a polite exchange of letters. The PCC has now launched a third inquiry – this one led by ‘The Phone Hacking Review Committee’. There is no reason to believe it will uncover any more than the first two (i.e. what is already in the public domain and what the newspaper editors choose to tell it). Without greater investigatory powers the PCC will be in no position to act any differently in the future.

Proper transparency

We still do not know who pays for the PCC or how much they pay. We do not know which news outlets are members of the PCC and which are not. We are not privy to the secret discussions of the Editorial Code Committee that defines the press’ code of conduct. Though the chair of the PCC last year said the PCC was committed to the spirit of Freedom of Information, the PCC has neither the structures nor the resources to fulfil this commitment (nor has it reacted positively to an FOI request from the MST).

[For a more detailed list of recommendations for reform see ‘Can independent self-regulation keep standards high and preserve press freedom?’]

The press has to recognise the scale of the phone hacking scandal. This is not something that can be ‘put in a box’ as James Murdoch said a fortnight ago. This will hang over the industry until it takes substantive action to show it recognises the extent of the problem and is taking action to prevent it happening in the future.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, and Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, has both publicly criticised the current system. Rusbridger stepped down from the Editorial Code committee when the PCC published its second report into phone hacking (that was critical of the Guardian’s investigation), saying that the PCC report was “worse than pointless … actually rather dangerous to the press.” Barber, in his 2011 Hugh Cudlipp lecture, said that, in the way it had acted towards phone hacking “The PCC was supine at best”.

It is time for other senior figures in the press to step forward and voice their concerns about the inadequacy of the current system and the need for reform. Either that or let more politicians do it for them.