The British press is very good at telling others how to organise their affairs. It is not so good at putting its own house in order. Our newspapers have a long and consistent record of evasion and inaction when it comes to dealing with its own deficiencies. One interesting, and neglected example concerns the “Editors’ Code”. This is the code of standards which the discredited Press Complaints Commission claims to enforce.
The Code is drawn up by a body known as the Editors Code Committee. This, as Lord Justice Leveson pointed out:
“is wholly made up of serving editors and is separate from the PCC. Its members are appointed by the Press Standards Board of Finance (‘PressBoF’), itself entirely made up of senior industry figures”.
Lord Justice Leveson did not like this arrangement. He suggested that
“a Code Committee would have to be established on which, I believe serving editors have an important part to play although not one that is decisive. The Code Committee should advise the new body which itself would take ultimate responsibility for its content and promulgation” (Recommendation 7).
Without making recommendations as to the content of the Code he made clear that there should be public consultation on its terms.
How did the Editors’ Code Committee react to these recommendations? Just over a fortnight after the publication of the Leveson Report it issued a Response [pdf]. This, we were told, “followed a Special Meeting” of the Committee held on 5 December 2012.
The Code Committee announced a “series of initiatives” which aimed to “ensure high standards of journalism in a fast changing media world”:
1. The Code’s definition of the public interest will be revised with urgency, in light of the Leveson Report, to take into account the definition of the public interest published by the Director of Public Prosecutions in his recent Guidelines for Prosecutors.
2. The Committee also agreed to take up Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation to appoint lay members. The Committee at present comprises 13 editors, plus the Chairman and Director of the Press Complaints Commission as observers. In future it is proposed the number of editors will be reduced by three, to 10, with five lay individuals – including the Chairman and Director of the new regulator joining the Committee as full members.
3. The Committee proposes to add a new Compliance Clause to the Editors’ Code. Under this clause all editors must offer readers a clear and effective means of making complaints, and publish corrections and apologies promptly, preferably without recourse to the new Regulator. In cases where it is not possible to reach agreement by negotiation, the clause will make it clear that editors will have to publish adjudications, and approved corrections and apologies, in positions required by the Regulator.
4. The Committee will also, as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson, undertake a review of the Code. It will invite suggestions from the public and, for the first time, newspapers and magazines will be encouraged to urge their own readers to contribute.
This was on 14 December 2012. What has the Editors’ Code Committee done to implement these initiatives? In accordance with the usual approach by the press to its promises on regulation the answer is: as little as possible.
There has been no “urgent” revision of the definition of public interest. No lay members have been appointed to the Committee (although the number of editors has, mysteriously, been reduced from 12 to 11). There has been no addition of a compliance clause to the Editors’ Code.
The Committee did undertake a “review of the Code”. This was launched in December 2012 with a February deadline for responses. On 14 February 2013 this deadline was extended to 17 April 2013 [pdf]. Since then, silence. No “consultation responses” have been published and no proposed revisions to the Code. In short, once again, nothing has happened.
In short, the Committee’s practical response to the Leveson recommendations has been promise “initiatives” and then to do nothing at all. This is, in microcosm, the press response to external criticism: ignore the substance, pretend to take minor action and then do nothing.
Under PCC Mark II (otherwise known as IPSO) the Code Committee will continue in existence – operating under the control of the “Regulatory Funding Body” (PressBoF Mark II). Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation that the self-regulator should, itself, take ultimate responsibility for the Code has been ignored.
Is this a system which can command the confidence of the public?
This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks