Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, has suggested that the way forward for press ethics is to license individual journalists and remove
their press cards if they transgress. This plan has now been taken up by Lord Black, currently chair of the
Press Board of Finance (the body that funds the PCC) and Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group.
There is something quite surreal about hearing Lord Black philosophically reject any form of statutory underpinning for a new press complaints body (Black 2012), while at the same time, in his written evidence
, espousing what would effectively be, the licensing of every journalist in the country. The Black/Dacre plan would be the biggest restraint on press freedom since the mid nineteen century when the Stamp Duty was repealed.
Their plan would ensure that only journalists licensed by a body involved in the PCC would have access to a range of ‘privileges’ including access to some press briefings. They are also exploring the possibility of binding the Press Association into an agreement only to service ‘licensed’
journalists. As Dacre explained to Leveson:
“I do believe there’s an opportunity to build on the existing haphazard press card system… by transforming it into an essential kite mark for ethical and proper journalism. The key would be to make the cards available only to members of print news-gathering organisations or magazines who have signed up to the new body and its code…
“There would… be universal agreement that briefings and press conferences by government bodies, local authorities and the police, access to sporting, royal and celebrity events, material from the BBC and ITV, and information from medical and scientific bodies would only, only be given to accredited journalists.” (Dacre 6th Feb 2012)
The difficulty with this arrangement is that only those organisations that can afford to pay the necessary fee (not yet decided) and are willing to sign up to the five-year contract, would be eligible to join the new organisation. The PCC2 would still be entirely dominated by editors, or people who have been editors (or senior executives). The NUJ has been explicitly excluded and there appears to be no provision for single-person organisations or freelance workers. Lord Hunt (interim chair of the PCC) did spot the anomaly here and conceded in his evidence that
there may be a need to introduce an: “associate membership for small web-only organisation who cannot afford to join” but this has not been raised as a possibility in the plans put forward by Black via PressBoF – the organisation that has control of the PCC.
No room here for a new generation of small start-up local news organisations who make very little money but do, genuinely, want to
provide news in the “public interest’. No room either for freelance writers who are not attached to one of the PCC affiliated publications. Only those belonging to the club would have access to public information. It would be a good way of squeezing out new start-ups at just the very moment when we most need new models of journalism, unencumbered by printing presses and legacy debts. It is hard indeed to see how people who start their blogs as one-person outfits and gradually built up a following (and with it the means to produce some form of income) could function at all in this new regulatory universe.
Even for those larger organisations that would be able to join up, it is difficult to see why licensing by a body dominated by mass market tabloids would be preferable to licensing of journalists by a statutory body. Neither system would be compatible with press freedom. In the case of the PCC/Dacre plan, individual journalists working for the most competitive national newspapers (the ones who caused the problem in the first place) would be held to account for their ethical behaviour while at the same time, being leant on very heavily to use any means
necessary to get a story.
The evidence from the NUJ shows a pattern of bullying at the News of The World the newspaper at the centre of the hacking scandal (see NUJ evidence to Leveson). Where journalists were employed either freelance, or on short term and insecure contracts, they were often under acute pressure to get a story. Research for Leverhulme Spaces of the News found a similar pattern, across the media. With a licensing system in place, those higher up the hierarchy would have the perfect excuse simply to dispose of journalists, who are caught over-stepping the ethical line and in so doing depriving them of their livelihood.
The effect on those who do not work for news organisations big enough to pay for membership of the new PCC would be terminal. Without a Press Card they would simply be barred from access to key information. It is quite astonishing that an organisation that makes press freedom its key philosophical platform should consider such an arrangement.
While these are clearly the most regressive ideas currently circulating there are a number of different plans in play for reforming ethical
behaviour. The two key suggestion come from Media Standards Trust
and Media Reform. The Media Reform
model borrows from ideas drawn up by Hugh Tomlinson
. Both Media Reform and The MST have grappled with the difficulty of creating a regulator that does not limit or restrict entry to the profession, nor prevent people from working and investigating, but at the same time focuses on the culture of mass market news-rooms and gives members of the public a reasonable chance of redress.
Both plans recognise that the culture at the bottom of an organisation is dictated from the behaviour at the top – not the other way
around. MST suggests the establishment of an independent auditor with the power to inspect the internal complianceregimes of every publication. Only large organisations would have to be part of this inspection regime and they would also be compelled to join a self-regulatory body. This means that the control would be hands-off and entirely directed at ensuring that there is a satisfactory ethics regime in place. It would have no role in dictating ethical standards.
The Media Reform plan starts with the introduction of a statutory Right of Reply. This would be subject to detailed discussion about its limits but it would ensure that people have the right to demand a correction in a timely fashion and in a prominent place. Given that some 80 per cent of complaints to the PCC are about accuracy rather than privacy, this should encourage all publications to set up internal compliance procedures and ought to take a very large number of complaints out of the regulatory system completely. Where there is a dispute over the right of reply (where a publication stands by its version of events) there would be a procedure for fast conciliation or arbitration. The main object of this change would be to instil a culture of care and correction. A journalist’s first obligation is, surely, to get it right.
Standing behind the Right of Reply there would be an organisation not unlike the PCC but composed of representatives of ordinary
journalists as well as editors and members of the public. Members of this organisation would be open to any publications, large or small, that sees
itself as producing news. Those with a turnover below a certain threshold would be entitled to free, associate membership. This would encourage every organisation to be inside the tent.
The organisation would monitor ethical behaviour, employ an ombudsman for conciliation of disputes and, critically, provide news
organisations that are members, with access to an arbitration tribunal which would have the power to fine and to order payment of damages. Legal disputes that were brought to this tribunal could be solved fast, with much less expense than that required to defend a case in court and would therefore provide news organisations with a first line of defence against companies and wealthy individuals using threats of court action to stop investigations. It would also provide cheap access to justice for ordinary members of the public. This system would be contingent on changes to the law clarifying the public interest defence that journalists would be able to use when carrying out work that is important to the public rather than merely titilating.
The value of the MST and Media Reform (CCMR) plans is that they would not disadvantage small organisations or freelance journalists. They would encourage better ethical behaviour without curbing press freedom. The CCMR plan would also introduce a cheap form of redress for those who have been treated unfairly by an over-mighty press. Click here
for more on the CCMR evidence.