Insight and analysis from Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford

Why Press Gazette is backing campaign against statutory regulation of the press

Over 100 days of testimony the Leveson Inquiry didn’t appear to find fault with one syllable of the Editors’ Code.

And as we all now know – phone and computer hacking, breaches of privacy and libel are well covered by the existing law.

So Leveson’s recommendations will come down to a question of enforcement and whether the press owners’ plan for PCC2 goes far enough.

The widely held belief on Fleet Street appears to be that he will recommend some form of statutory regulation: a new ‘independent’ press regulator underpinned by statute.

Pressbof’s PCC2 plan has its flaws, but even self-regulation controlled by the very owners responsible for allowing the phone-hacking mess and cover-up to happen would be better than seeing a return to state control of the press for the first time in 300 years.

Just to recap, Pressbof is proposing to keep the complaints handling wing of the PCC but it also wants to create a new investigations arm to tackle cases of heinous wrongdoing (such as hacking).

It will also have the power to impose fines of up to £1m in extreme cases. The board of the new body would comprise the chairman alongside two industry representatives (proposed by the owners) and two lay (non-industry) members.

All four board members would have to agree to the chairman’s appointment (giving the industry an effective veto over that appointment).

There will be a majority of lay members on the adjudication committee that decides on complaints.

It makes big concessions acknowledging the depth of public concern over the hacking scandal.

My only concern is that it doesn’t get to the heart of the cultural problems on Fleet Street which allowed phone-hacking to proliferate.

You only have to browse the case list at the Old Bailey to see the hacking ‘conspiracy’ appears to have gone to the very top of News International.

There needs to be some pressure-release mechanism which allows ordinary journalists to blow the whistle with impunity when they feel they are being forced to behave unethically.

And perhaps the Editors’ Code should become the Journalists’ Code, giving journalists and freelances who refuse to carry out unethical assignments immunity from dismissal (over and above their existing statutory rights).

Some years ago, journalists from Express Newspapers urged the PCC to take action because they felt they were coming under pressure to write anti-gypsy articles. They were ignored.

The new PCC needs to find a way to open up its ears to industry voices outside the narrow circle of owners and editors who control it at present.

The Newspaper Society, Newspaper Publishers Association and PPA this week launched a campaign under the banner of the Free Speech Network against state regulation of the press.

Press Gazette is proud to support that campaign. But it also hopes that the owners’ commitment to free speech extends to within their own newsrooms as  they finalise plans for whatever new regulator they put forward to replace the PCC.

MORE:

An extract from Tim Luckhurst's pamphlet making the case for self-regulation of the press

Hacked Off's Brian Cathcart on why stricter regulation is a medicine we have to take

Publishers step up fight against state regulation

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