There are at least two ways of looking at the proposals for regulation aired at the Leveson inquiry by Lord Black, who represents editors and proprietors.
His way is to say that this is a rigorous system of “independently-led self-regulation” that preserves us from the philosophically and fundamentally unacceptable possibility of statutory regulation.
Another way is that this is the least that editors and proprietors can get away with in their present crisis, without actually making themselves accountable to the public.
Lord Black warns that if we once let politicians meddle with the press (‘statutory regulation’) they will not be able to stop. They may start with some cautious arm’s-length tinkering, but once their fingers are dirty they will get stuck in and progressively gag the press.
It’s an argument you can’t actually disprove, but it’s also weak and speculative. The underlying implication is that politicians inevitably tend to want control of the press, but where is the evidence for that? The history of the past 60 years shows that parliament and governments have stubbornly resisted engaging with press regulation, even at moments when they and the public have been outrageously provoked.
The Media Standards Trust proposals for reform include a useful account of that history that is worth reading in full, but here is a brief summary:
1949: The first Royal Commission on the Press told the industry to set up a self-regulatory General Council of the Press. The industry did nothing.
1953: After MPs threatened statutory regulation the industry finally created the Press Council, but it was a far weaker body than the Royal Commission suggested.
1962: A second Royal Commission gave the industry another chance to make self-regulation effective. Some changes followed, but the Press Council continued to be seen ‘more as a champion of the press than as a watchdog for the public’.
1969: The Younger Committee on Privacy recommended reform of the Press Council. The industry took four years to act and then implemented only some changes.
1977: The third Royal Commission demanded change and threatened a statutory solution if it did not come. Again, only a grudging minimum of changes were made.
1983: The independent Robertson Report on the Press Council recommended major changes. None were made.
1990: The Calcutt Committee on Privacy gave the industry ‘one last chance’, demanding the replacement of the Press Council with a Press Complaints Commission and setting a time limit for action. The industry set up the PCC, but it was far weaker than Calcutt intended, indeed in many ways weaker than the Press Council.
1993: The Calcutt Review declared the PCC a failure, said the industry had no intention of regulating itself properly and recommended establishing a statutory Press Complaints Tribunal. Instead, the PCC was allowed to continue.
It is a picture, not of relentless meddling with the press by politicians, but of astonishing reluctance to meddle with the press. And it continues. The past decade has seen the Commons media select committee, for example, repeatedly decline every opportunity to propose even the most minimal statutory intervention.
And if there isn’t much historical evidence of politicians being desperate to gag the press, there isn’t much current evidence either. Every current party leader has stressed the paramount importance of freedom of expression and so – many times – has Lord Justice Leveson; indeed no significant politician or group of politicians has argued for constraints on free expression. And it may be relevant that parliament is currently debating a defamation bill that extends the freedom of the press rather than constricts it.
The history, by contrast, supports the second interpretation of the plans put forward by the editors and proprietors: that they just want to keep control.
From 1949 to today, control of regulation has clearly been central to their concerns and whatever has happened they have been determined to avoid accountability to outsiders, notably the public. That’s what self-regulation means.
And even when the systems have looked impressive, as Lord Black’s and Lord Hunt’s ideas may seem to some today, they have been less so in practice. And the press has always used its megaphone in the effort to drown debate. The PCC was criticised from the outset but as recently as 2009 the editors and proprietors not only defended it but insisted there were no grounds for the criticism.
Their submission to the Commons media committee in that year declared defiantly:
“The PCC and self regulation work well, and it is difficult to discern any grounds for its fundamental tenets to be questioned.”
That was after the McCann affair, and even after the conviction of the phone hackers Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. Against that background in 2009 the editors and proprietors found the PCC perfectly satisfactory.
Have we seen evidence in recent months of a transformation in their attitudes sufficient to convince us that they really mean to be rigorous in future? Have editors trailed before Leveson saying they were sorry and they got it all wrong? No. They have been, for the most part, chippy and defiant.
Lord Black is appealing to our instinct to say “I just don’t trust politicians”. But do we trust the editors and proprietors of the national papers any more? Look at their record.
As we shall see over the next fortnight it is not beyond the wit of man to contrive a system that makes the press accountable to the public and is grounded in statute, without handing government the power to dictate what the press can publish. The judge himself has pointed out that we have independent judges, and their arrangements are fixed by statute.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart
This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.