Lord Black’s plans for reform of press self-regulation, based on a system of commercial contracts, have so far received remarkably little scrutiny. Black was grilled by Robert Jay QC at the Leveson Inquiry, though the substance of his oral evidence was hardly reported.
The Guardian and Northern and Shell made criticisms of the plans to the Inquiry, though these were not covered and are buried deep in the Leveson website. The Guardian also drew attention to issues of independence in its leader column, and to the problems of accreditation elsewhere. But that’s about it.
This is remarkable for two reasons. These plans have, we are told by Lord Black and Lord Hunt (Chair of the PCC) broad support from many of those within the press, and will therefore be taken very seriously by Lord Justice Leveson. But, equally important, Black and Hunt have indicated that they would like to move ahead with the plans whatever Leveson recommends. This assumes, quite rightly, that there will be a hiatus between the publication of the recommendations and when they are put into practice.
Therefore it is doubly important that the plans receive proper public scrutiny. This is why the Media Standards Trust today published a short analysis of the plans, ‘The Lord Black Plan for reform of press self-regulation: a short critique’ [pdf]
The report acknowledges the positive elements of the plan. It cites the sensible use of contracts to clarify the relationship between the regulator and the news organisations. It points to the proposed investigative arm and possible arbitral arm as important contributions.
However, the report also highlights ten significant problems with the plan as it stands:
1. It is not a ‘new system entirely’
2. It is not independent
3. It maintains the dominance of the key vested interests
4. The incentives to participate will damage journalistic freedom
5. A news organisation can effectively buy itself out of the contract
6. It is unwieldy, bureaucratic, and significantly under-costed
7. Its powers of sanction are limited and unspecified
8. Third parties will find it as hard, if not harder, to complain
9. It remains mediation not regulation
10. It has a 5 year sell-by-date
On the contracts themselves, the report notes their weakness as compared to other regulatory contracts. In the case of the Premier League, for example, signing up to the league is very lucrative and allows a team to compete in the league. Breaching the contract can lead to points deductions or fines. A club that failed to pay could be thrown out of the league. None of this applies in relation to the Lord Black proposal. If, as Lord Black has recently suggested, the system of press cards and denial of PA feeds does not go ahead, then there are no strong incentives for joining the new self-regulatory system. The regulated entities do not gain any financial or legal advantage, nor any privileged access to information. Exclusion or expulsion from the system would not, in other words, disadvantage them.
Even if all the major news organisations sign up to this contract plan – itself very much in doubt – it is hard to see how it could satisfy public confidence, how it could demonstrate its independence, and how it could survive its first serious challenge by an aggrieved news organisation.
The Media Standards Trust is an independent registered charity which aims to foster high standards in news media on behalf of the public.