Monday, 11 July 2011

On the PCC and What Press Regulation Means for Britain

On Friday as Andy Coulson was being interviewed by the police, the Prime Minister let slip his personal assurance that the embattled Press Complaints Commission was at last on its way to the scrapyard, to be replaced with a stronger form of regulation, self- or otherwise. This was promptly followed by an indignant reply from the PCC, which retorted that as an independent body the PM could not so easily dispose of them.

The PCC has been attacked virtually since its inception as toothless and ineffectual, the main disagreement is about whether you think this is intentional-- engineered by the bosses of print media to achieve a veneer of accountability while in practice allowing them to do as they wish-- or merely incidental. Whatever your feeling on the matter, one thing it isn’t is independent. Regulation can be handled by politicians, by an independent organisation or by self-regulation, although there may be some overlap and these categories are not mutually exclusive.

The PCC itself isn’t government run, that much is true. It is perhaps best described as a private body exercising a public function. This is not at all unusual for self-regulation, but the print media cannot be compared to other businesses-- they are intrinsically connected to how the public gather and process information about our society, and virtually impossible to depoliticise.

A truly independent body would be one which was set up by the government, but governed by legislation and accountable via judicial review. Such a body would need to be independent both from those it regulates and from politicians, and as such should have strictly legal boundaries which delineate its operations and responsibilities, and be accountable to those its decisions impact.

Although many people have expressed concerns that the government might over-react and stifle freedom of the press, there is no evident reason this should be so. Regulation should seek to: A) Maintain the existing law as to phone hacking, defamation (assuming effective reform) etc; B) address concerns about intentional or malicious misrepresentation of facts; C) address the question of privacy.

These must necessarily be achieved by different channels. The PCC did deal with errors and mis-statements made by papers, though it was extremely ineffective in garnering retractions of equal prominence to the original statements. Still, this could be handled by an independent body able to impose penalties and demand appropriate retractions, or by a body able to act on behalf of the public in taking such complaints to court-- a narrow, well refined legal framework might forbid intentional or malicious mis-statements, and require retractions of equal prominence, not dissimilarly to defamation. This would provide a clear legal standard and provide a deterrant effect, and lead papers to be more cautious in printing false information.

The law regarding phone hacking and suborning police officers must clearly be dealt with through criminal law channels, via the police and crown prosecution service. However, given the nature of the alleged bribery and intimidation of the police in the recent scandal, there may need to be reforms aimed at procedural transparency. There are clearly many options for taking this forward but few which are either palatable or workable, and the most reasonable and likely is to simply tighten up the law regarding the responsibility of editors for what goes on under their watch. If they know they can and will be held personally liable and that the police will take such investigations seriously, editors will take more stringent preventative measures themselves.

Finally, regarding issues of privacy there is no sound alternative to a public debate and proper consultation. Ultimately this is the area which most threatens to change how the tabloids operate, and we have to make a decision as a society as to where the lines should be drawn. For example, if we ignore the phone hacking, and assume papers could gather the same information via other channels, would we feel comfortable with them printing information about Gordon Brown’s severely ill children? Or about the lives of the families of murder victims?

Far more than the question of phone hacking, it is these questions that have finally been forced upon us this past week, and it is these questions that we will have to finally address. It isn’t about taking away freedom of the press. The press has never had absolute freedom to do whatever it likes. There have always been lines it was not meant to cross. We don’t want the press to be free to outright deceive us, or to profit from the misery of victims, it was never meant to be free to do those things.

This is simply a time to redress the balance, and to reconsider our own values as a nation.

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