Society of Editors 2012: Show goes on despite the notable absentees

In her welcome address to delegates at the Society of Editors Conference, outgoing president Fran Unsworth wrote how she hoped Lord Justice Leveson would have reported back in time for the event and “done us the courtesy of discussing his conclusion with us”.

As it turned out, a disastrous weekend at the BBC meant the corporation’s head of news gathering was added to the list of notable absentees from this year’s event.

Unsworth had made the trip to Belfast but was forced to return to London to deal with the fallout from director general George Entwistle’s resignation the night before the conference got underway.

Another of those forced to send his apologies was Iain Overton, editor-in-chief of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

It was a tweet sent by Overton ten days before the conference that may have helped push Newsnight into running a story alleging a senior Tory was a paedophile without making the necessary checks.

With accusations of “shoddy journalism” against the corporation and the Bureau, being holed up in a hotel full of journalists for two days was probably the last place either wanted to be. Overton has since resigned as editor of the Bureau while Unsworth was promoted, temporarily, to BBC head of news pending the outcome of the Pollard review of the Jimmy Savile affair.

The talk among journalists outside the conference rooms of Belfast’s Europa Hotel – often with unashamed glee – was dominated by the crisis engulfing the Beeb.

And while he may not have been there in the flesh, inside the conference rooms the discussion was dominated by the spectre of one man: Lord Justice Leveson.

The Society of Editors Lecture was given by Lord Hunt of Wirral, who took over as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission last October.

His speech was largely a reiteration of a vision of tighter self-regulation that he and Lord Black, the executive director of Telegraph Media Group, put forward in February.

For an organisation eager to reinvent itself, it was perhaps surprising that Hunt dismissed suggestions from the NUJ that broader industry voices beyond editors and owners needed to be in the new-look PCC.

“To those who say journalists should have a stronger voice in the system, let me remind them that editors are journalists too – very successful ones at that,” he said.

He dismissed calls for an independent press regulator established in statute, using the familiar argument that Britain has “shied away from statutory regulation of the press ever since the Licensing Act was repealed in 1695”.

Hunt also made a very practical objection: that it would take “many months, probably years” to legislate. Hunt’s model, in contrast, is “more or less ready to go”.

He later promised to meet with campaign groups such as Hacked Off and the NUJ to achieve a “broad consensus” on press regulation after Leveson reports later this month.

Continuing with Sunday’s theme, Monday began with a discussion on ‘The World after Leveson’, featuring the likes of Lord Black, Independent editor Chris Blackhhurst and leading QC David Price.

Like Hunt, Lord Black reiterated his support for self-regulation, urging Leveson to give editors time to establish their own strengthened form of self-regulation.

It would “support good journalism and be the scourge of bad journalism”, he insisted.

Blackhurst, on the other hand, appeared resigned to at least some form of statutory regulation, following his warning three months ago that Leveson was “loading a gun” and preparing to launch a “damning indictment” of the national press.

Striking a similar note at the conference, he warned that papers would face a “deluge” of criticism in the aftermath of the report.

While Hunt insists every national title has signed up to his new model, Lord Inglewood, chair of the House of Lords Communications Committee, still felt it necessary to warn that “regulation does not stand a chance if anybody who is remotely significant doesn’t buy into it”.

Touching on the so-called Desmond problem, he added: “The last man standing has the rest of you over a barrel.”

Price questioned the appointment of Leveson to head the inquiry into press standards given his background as a criminal lawyer, warning editors that “all his instincts will be to regulate, to look back at something that has gone wrong”.

Elsewhere, the results of a journalism training survey found a majority of editors believe there are far too many journalism courses available in the UK given the limited number of jobs available.   

Joanne Butcher, chief executive of the National Council for the Training of Journalists, said it was a “disgrace to see so many young people completing expensive courses and passing bogus qualifications” that do not provide them with the skills to do the job.

“We owe it to them to expose this scandal,” she said.

Butcher also announced that “after much soul-searching” the NCTJ would now place “far greater emphasis” on the teaching of ethics journalism.

With one eye on Leveson, she told delegates that there were “commercial as well as moral reasons for taking ethics very seriously”, adding that “the current teaching of journalistic ethics has been too patchy, random and implicit”.  

Monday’s day-time sessions concluded with a keynote address from Culture Committee chair John Whittingdale, who told the gathering of senior editors that the press had been guilty of some “appalling failures”.

He too reaffirmed his support for continued self-regulation, suggesting any form of statute would “set an extraordinarily dangerous precedent”.

For an event not known for its left-wing tendencies, the show was arguably stolen by a self-described Marxist.

Mick Hume, unlike many on the Left, takes the contrarian view that even the model proposed by Hunt and Black is too draconian – his position is best summed up in the title of his new book: ‘There is no such as a free press’.

“We’ve heard a lot over the last 18 months about what journalists have been allowed to get away with,” he said.

“But what’s really shocked me is what the anti-press, pro-regulation lobby have been allowed to get away with.

“How they have been allowed to assume the moral high ground, to get away with rewriting history in the most outrageous way.”

While Hume’s speech will have buoyed many in the self-regulation lobby, they also left with these words ringing in their ears: “The Leveson Inquiry fulfils all the normal criteria of a show trial, which is a trial in which the verdict is already decided before the trial ends.”

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