One man who hasn’t had much time to enjoy the Olympics is press inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson.
And as he reviews the stupendous amount of evidence that his wide-ranging inquiry has compiled, one question will weigh most heavily on his mind. Does he give the industry one last chance to set its own house in order by agreeing to the Pressbof plan for PCC2? Or does he set himself against the collective might of the press owners, ignore their painstakingly worked out and go his own way.
My hunch is that, as is often the way with judges in civil cases, he will find a way to knock the heads together of the press industry and its detractors in order to come up with a compromise arrangement which all can sign up to.
Pressbof’s plan for PCC2 is mainly concerned with finding ways to lock publishers into membership of a new regulator by controlling press cards,
access to Press Association copy and major advertising. It nods its head to being a more independent body by giving public members the majority on the new complaints arm. But ultimately it would remain a body funded and governed by the industry.
While the owners have come a long way, it does not seem to have occurred to them to include any voices from outside their number in the reform process.
Consultation appears to have been confined chiefly to the publishers themselves and the top national editors. Not only did they not involve the ‘victims of the press’ in their deliberations, few editors from outside the top tier of the industry were involved and no effort at all was made to consult ordinary journalists at the coalface.
While PCC2 has much to recommend it, there is a danger that a body dominated by owners and editors will fail to pick up on the problems which led to the hacking scandal.
A look at the list of names charged with in the great hacking ‘conspiracy’ – from former chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks down – suggests that this was not a problem confined to a few rogue foot soldiers.
My hope is that the owners hold their noses and engage with the likes of the NUJ and the Chartered Institute of Journalists to come up with a new system which involves all parts of the industry.
This could simply involve including a ‘conscience clause’ in journalists’ contracts, some provision for and protection of whistleblowers and ensuring there is a journalists’ representative on the new complaints body.
Pressbof also needs to come up with a way to ensure that the new regulator is genuinely independent of the owners to the extent that, if necessary, it can turn on them.
A regulator set up to protect press freedom should do more than just ensure that erring journalists are punished for their mistakes. It needs to ensure that honest journalists are protected from the pressures brought by unscrupulous owners.
I believe Pressbof or the PCC need to carry out a genuine public consultation now and get cracking soon on PCC3 – otherwise they will have themselves to blame when a state-backed regulation system is imposed on us all.
UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me by someone who should know that, as far as we can tell, the vast majority of the press industry has signed up to PCC2 and supports it and that even the criticisms coming from Express Newspapers are not insurmountable . They are at least taking part in the discussion, which is a big improvement. These are only my, probably eccentric views, and should not be read as being indicative of widespread industry discontent about the Pressbof plan.