I’m about to read the Leveson report and then listen to his statement. Whilst I wait, I cast my mind back to 1990 and the publication of the Calcutt Report. It led to the axing of the ineffectual Press Council and the introduction of the Press Complaints Commission to strengthen self-regulation of newspapers.
The press were told at the time they were drinking in the last chance saloon. Some responded by going on a 22 year pub crawl.
That’s why it’s so important that we get it right this time. George Eustice was absolutely right in highlighting how many ‘last chances’ the press have had.
The Press Complaints Commission under the stewardship of Sir Christopher Meyer and Baroness Buscombe was a toothless lapdog that looked the other way and never bit the hand that fed it.
During the investigation into phone hacking, it took the News of the World’s side in saying the Guardian evidence was wrong. The News of the World is no more and hopefully this ineffectual body will follow it into extinction.
During my evidence to the inquiry as a core participant, Lord Leveson invited me to submit my thoughts on what could replace the Press Complaints Commission.
Don’t get me wrong, we need a vibrant and inquisitive press to hold the establishment to account, to expose injustice and fight for a better society. The Guardian successfully did that in proving the rogue reporter theory peddled by News International, the Met Police and the PCC, was a total lie.
But we can’t have a regulator that’s effectively financed and run by the very people it’s supposed to hold to account. It’s like putting criminals in charge of the probation service.
So I set up a working group with several academics and legal experts to suggest what a truly independent regulator would look like. You can read the report in full here but these are the top lines.
The disastrous failure of the PCC in recent years would render any direct successor tainted by association. A complete clean break is needed with the past.
The new regulatory framework has to cater for press activity across all media, should such parties choose to join. Any such framework restricted to the printed press is out of date now, and will be completely irrelevant in the near future. But it should be voluntary and not mandatory.
It is both possible and desirable to have a voluntary regulatory framework, but this will require a cocktail of incentives to make membership commercially compelling to the press.
Some of these incentives will need statutory support. There are useful precedents in the Irish Defamation Act on how some of these incentives can be brought into being.
The regulatory framework should include an Ombudsman, which will encourage the press to resolve complaints in-house, and, if this is not possible, then seek to adjudicate on unresolved complaints in a non-legalistic way. This is of pressing importance at a time when the ability of most people to take the press to Court is becoming limited as the process become more expensive.
The Editors’ Code of Practice has a lot of useful guidance, and much of it needs no amendment. However there needs to be a wider debate on the definition of the Public Interest in today’s society, especially if this is to provide defence in the Courts.
The European Convention on Human Rights already balances freedom of expression and press regulation adequately. Articles 8 and 10 on the rights to privacy and expression should be the reference points for any new regulatory framework.
Furthermore, the Courts are best placed to continue to be the final arbiter in resolving these tensions. We should leave these legal calls to judges not editors.
The scope of the Editors’ Code of Practice should also be widened to address how each press organisation operates as an entity, in terms of its ethics and its governance.
Finally, the new regulator should have real teeth to oversee the efforts of editors to achieve compliance with the Code through robust internal governance measures.
The regulator should be able, in exceptional circumstances, to go beyond simple requests for information and undertake its own investigations (which the editor and publication would have agreed to submit to, as part of the initial contractual agreement to join the scheme).
It should use third parties to support its work where its own resources will not suffice and be able to better adjudicate on complaints where mediation has failed and have stronger powers to obtain equal prominence for apologies and corrections in papers, as well as the ability to award compensation commensurate with the distress and damage caused.
The Leveson Inquiry has seen the good actions of the large majority of journalists undermined by the irresponsible actions of those who have abused the power of the press.
A new independent regulation system will require cross-party support. It will probably take some time to get agreement but it is worth getting right.
The victims of gross press intrusion like Chris Jefferies, the Dowlers and McCann’s don’t want to give the press ‘one last chance’ and neither should we.
So hopefully at 1.30 today, Leveson will finally be calling ‘Time Gentlemen Please’ on discredited and useless press self-regulation once and for all.
And we should all drink to that.
Lord John Prescott is the former Deputy Prime Minister