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Monday, July 11, 2011 

How the media can still make self-regulation work.

The truly remarkable thing about the past week has not so much been the revelations about phone hacking and the depths to which the NotW et al sunk, more the speed with which they've emerged and the sheer volume of them, to the extent that some are danger of being buried. It's also shown just how much some individuals suffered in something approaching silence as journalists accessed their highly private information, imagining that there was nothing to gain from speaking out. The Sun obtaining the medical records of Gordon Brown's then 4-month-old son Fraser which showed he had cystic fibrosis, Rebekah Brooks phoning up Damian MacBride and trying to put Brown off issuing a spoiling statement is only one such example. The Browns may well have decided that such intrusions were worth it for the nominal support which was still being given to Labour by the Murdoch press, although quite why they continued to have a close personal relationship with Brooks afterwards, Brown attending her wedding and his wife Sarah inviting her to Chequers for a sleepover only they can answer. Again, perhaps they feared worse would come if they snubbed them.

If yesterday's extraordinary walk-about by Murdoch and Brooks was not exactly the most thought through plan, then today's withdrawal of the spinning off of Sky News into a separate enterprise to avoid any suggestion of a narrowing of plurality is far more assured. It not only gets the government out of a political hole, something which Cameron and Jeremy Hunt are no doubt immensely pleased about and will remember, it also further suggests just how seriously News Corp is taking the hacking affair and shows they understand that, at least temporarily, there was no way they could acquire the whole of BSkyB without potentially tainting that brand also. In six months' time much of the past week's unprecedented scenes, with MPs for now losing their fear of the media and their power will have been forgotten, and the Mail and the Sun will be back stomping their dominance. Murdoch might for the moment have become something approaching persona non grata, yet without a doubt those currently maintaining a distance will soon return to his bosom, especially as the next election approaches. With Ed Miliband having surely destroyed any chance of endorsement with his forthrightness over the past week, assuming Cameron manages to survive the enormous damage he's done to himself through his employment of Andy Coulson, he's looking at an open door, although he may have to knock the horse-riding jaunts with Brooks on the head.

While the press is still mainly too cowed to suggest outright that the phone hacking scandal has presented politicians with a perfect opportunity to impose state regulation for their own benefit, preferring to only subtly make allusions to such an outrage, defences of the Press Complaints Commission are everywhere. On Saturday the Sun, which has still declined to make any proper comment on the scandal, instead leaving it to Trevor Kavanagh to repeat the line adopted by Brooks of blaming an axis of the Guardian, the BBC and Labour for the demise of the Screws, dedicated part of its leader to how self-regulation can still work (which seems to have disappeared for now), while the Mail, edited by the man who helms the PCC's code of practice has published a number of pieces saying much the same. This isn't too suggest that the reverse ferret, to adopt the tabloid phrase, on the PCC by Cameron and others doesn't potentially have self-serving overtones, nor that abolishing it and replacing it isn't problematic.

It's long been apparent though that the PCC simply doesn't work, thanks to the very reason that rather than setting itself up as an effective self-regulator with sanctions which would make newspapers and editors think twice before engaging in the very practices which have brought the industry to this point, it's completely toothless. No tabloid editor genuinely fears having to print the odd adjudication, or correction, especially when the latter can be buried, as embarrassing as it is to admit that their sheet of record isn't infallible. What would genuinely hurt them would be the ability to either level fines for the worst offences, or suspend the journalists or editors primarily responsible for a certain amount of time.

As Unity suggests, the best replacement for the PCC would be a fully independent tribunal, based somewhat on the current approach of the committee to the public but with far fewer representatives of the media on its boards and with powers similar to that of either Ofcom or the Advertising Standards Agency. The current situation, where the likes of the Express and Star can exempt themselves from the strictures of regulation through not funding the PCC's parent PressBoF would be a thing of the past, potentially through newspapers having to pay a compulsory levy to the tribunal based on sales and advertising revenues. This could potentially be refunded depending on the number/severity of the potential breaches of the new code of conduct over a year, which again should be based on the current one, with the apology/correction procedure beefed up considerably. Moreover, newspapers ought to be encouraged to have readers' editors on the Guardian/New York Times ombudsman model, through whom initial complaints direct to the press themselves could be routed, hopefully reducing the need for the tribunal to intervene.

It's true as Peter Preston argued yesterday that it isn't fair on the former broadsheet media that a system which they have in the main abided by and tried to make work has been brought low by the abuses of the tabloids. Indeed, it's long been the position of the Guardian especially that through tolerating the excesses of the News of the World the whole of the press was setting itself up for a fall. That long warned about fall has duly come, but it can hardly be said that the tabloids themselves haven't had a chance to change themselves or make the PCC an organisation in which the public could have confidence. When David Mellor said they were drinking in the "last chance saloon" in 1989 they for a while accepted they had in some cases gone too far, even if they maintained the standard level of defiance in their editorials. Complain as they will, this time they simply can't argue that things can carry on as before. The best thing they can do is come together now, accept that the PCC needs fundamental reform if not outright abolition and replacement, and then present their own plan as an alternative to whatever the coming inquiry recommends. It's the very least they owe to those in their profession that have done the right thing throughout.

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