Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre found an unlikely ally in his Guardian counterpart Alan Rusbridger last night.
In the annual Orwell Lecture yesterday Rusbridger praised Dacre for introducing its ‘corrections and clarifications’ column last month and agreed with the Mail editor’s call for a new press ombudsman with investigatory powers.
The Guardian editor used the lecture to outline his proposals for a ‘new independent regulator with teeth’which could act as a ‘one-stop shop’mediation service for libel and privacy cases as an alternative to the courts,
Commenting on the use of readers’ editors, which the Guardian pioneered in 1997, Rusbridger said: ‘There’s a pragmatic dollop of self-interest that ought to make us adopt readers’ editors and it’s this: the more we can be shown to be taking responsibility for our own regulation, the less outsiders will seek to impose it on us.
‘What better way to resist interference – including by a PCC successor – than demonstrating that we take the responsibility of correction and clarification seriously?
‘I don’t know how independent the Mail’s readers’ editor is – but Paul Dacre is absolutely right to start this and to have a fixed space everyday. That’s crucially different from dropping in the odd correction on a random page when all other defences have failed.
‘The latter is a pretence that error in journalism is exceptional. The former accepts that it is routine. Which do you think is nearer to the truth? As the Mail says, its journalists produce 80,000 words a night in the newspaper alone and ‘it is inevitable that mistakes do occur’.”
He then went on to support Dacre’s calls for the appointment of an ombudsman with powers to investigate newspapers.
He said: ‘One question the Leveson inquiry is bound to ask is: ‘How would a regulator handle a situation similar to the one the PCC faced in 2009?’- ie how could it behave like a proper regulator – with investigatory powers and sanctions – without being put on a statutory footing?
‘I suspect this was what Paul Dacre was hinting at when he suggested to the Leveson inquiry that the time had come to appoint some sort of ombudsman with powers to investigate professional or ethical standards and to impose fines. He proposed a ‘polluter pays’ principle.
“Here again, I agree with Paul Dacre. A useful example of a polluter being made to pay was the way in which the Independent Television Commission – the old regulator for ITV – reacted when, back in 1998, the Guardian published allegations about a programme on drug-running made by Carlton TV which included faked scenes.
‘The ITC imposed a £2m fine after a thorough investigation, led by Michael Beloff QC and a former controller of editorial policy at the BBC. The corporate Affairs Director at Carlton at the time was someone called David Cameron.
“Imagine, in July 2009, the PCC had called a leading QC and asked him/her to look at what had been going on at the News of the World. With powers to interview reporters and executives and forensically to examine the evidence – with NI paying the bill and with a £2m fine at the end.
“It might not have got at everything – we can see how opaque such a devious media company can be – but the prospect of such an interrogation would have been a sobering thought for NI and would bear pretty heavily on the minds of all editors – so heavily that I suspect the services of the ombudsman would not often be in demand.
“The threat of his/her intervention – and there would need to be a suitable threshold of prima facie evidence – would be a real deterrence.”