Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Let the anti-#Leveson propagana restart!

With the news out that it is likely that the Press' own version of the Royal Charter intended to implement the Leveson recommendations is being rejected, at least in the most part, the campaign by the "protectors of free speech" starts anew to misinform and mislead the public on what the proposals mean. Why they're trying to influence the public is entirely unclear to me, given both the conviction of those campaigning for a change in press regulation, and the wills of particular politicians involved in the process. Saying what they like, of course, is their right.

So, let's start looking again at this misinformation. Today, it's courtesy of the New Statesman...

The press in this country is not pretty, but it is free.

This is a bit of a petty point, but it's always worth reminding that the "freedom of the press" was never about free speech, it was about the freedom for anyone to be publishers of literature. This has always been caveated with laws or regulations of the land. The internet has brought about a revolution that is closer to the "freedom of the press" than anything that these publications talk about, but it's convenient to conflate the two meanings.

That was Ian Hislop's view as the media picked over the remains of the Press Charter regulator, which died on the flow of the Commons yesterday, put to death by Culture secretary Maria Miller in favour of the cross-party Royal Charter.

More context here... the press charter was not too different from the cross-party charter suggestions. Where it differed was significant though. Clearly the press understand that they can live by such rules, however they believe they need to the right to walk away from those obligations when they want, while the cross-party charter does not.

The worry is that underlying this move to regulate the press is a desire to somehow make us pretty, to smooth the rough edges and make a raucous bundle of publishers just, well, calm down.

This is an unfounded worry, since the underlying move is a desire to make the press *accountable*, and hopefully through accountability also more ethical...though this is entirely up to the papers as to whether the cost-benefit analysis shows that it's more profitable for them to be unethical and suck up the fines. No-one cares about the press being pretty or not, they care about them being fair and accurate, and where they are not to have fairness in the response to legitimate complaints.

The objections of the press to the cross-party plan are legion. Firstly there is the principle, that at its very heart it accepts the principle that Parliament should have a hand in defining journalism. For many that is a line that should not be crossed.

This is not the principle being accepted. Parliament is not defining journalism, at best it is defining the areas of journalism that should be watched.

We should remember too that the UK sets a template for press regulation across the world, many have used the Press Complaints Commission as their model for regulation and it is worrying to think that some will be casting an eye on a regulator approved by politicians and thinking it to their liking.

*yawn* What threats. What majestic arrogance. If other countries want to follow our lead, fine. If they don't? Fine. It's not our place to worry about what other countries will or will not do with their press before worrying about the quality of our own press. But thanks guys, nice ghost story.

Secondly, there is the so-called carrot of reduced arbitration costs for those publishers inside the new regulatory regime. Those outside could face exemplary damages if they lose a libel or privacy case, and possibly pick up everyone's costs even if they win. This is no carrot, it is a stick, you can paint it orange and tell the Press it is a carrot all you want, they know a big stick when they see one.

They're right here, it is a stick. Does it make a difference to the effect it's intended to have? No. The freedom to accept the stick, or take the carrot, however you wish to define it, is entirely up to the individual publishers.

Thirdly, there is very little in this new regime for regional newspaper publishers. They genuinely believe the new regulator will cost them considerably more than the PCC, which they can ill afford.

Taken from the draft Charter:

"23. The membership of a regulatory body should be open to all publishers on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, including making membership potentially available on different terms for different types of publisher."

The reduced costs mean nothing to them, they very rarely fight libel and privacy actions, they settle them. It is worth remembering that the regional press, which outsells the national press and then some every day, did nothing to cause this crisis and the PCC was very effective in regulating it and providing redress to those who complained about local papers.

At the minute regional papers must bow down to the alter of the PCC. The cross-party charter offers two rays of hope to those local publications. For a start, there are discussions to be had on what is fair and reasonable for those publications to take part. They may well be paying less for the PCC than big tabloids...this need not change.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly for the regional papers, they don't have to be a part of the same regulatory body as the national papers. In fact it may well be preferable for regional and local papers to belong to one regulator while national papers and online conglomerates belong to another. There are options on the table here for regional publications, if they wish to explore them.

The behaviour of some journalists, on some papers, that got us here was ethically unacceptable. It was also against the law.

Some of it was against the law, some of it wasn't. The continued focus on this "against the law" fallacy is only intended to do one thing, to confuse people that somehow this change in regulation isn't a good thing...because all we need is those horrible police to do their job better!

This is not the case, and the issues with law breaking investigated by Leveson focused more on the culture and ownership of publications that not only allowed but potentially encouraged the breaking of the law, rather than the actual crimes themselves.

If someone is prepared to break the law, there are few ethical codes in the world that will stop them. To expect the Press Complaints Commission, which has no investigators on its payroll, to pick up a ball so comprehensively fumbled by the Metropolitan Police is unreasonable.

Which is why the proposals don't expect regulators to investigate anything, they expect them to provide more transparent information to the public on how to act, more protection for journalists to act as whistleblowers if they witness the brewings of this kind of illegal activity, and to provide more routes earlier to take cases up against publications if needs be.

No-one is suggesting that these proposals will stop criminal activity if people want to commit it, but it will provide another tool or two to prevent it earlier.

Those who say we do not have a free press, but one owned by a few powerful "press barons" make two mistakes. Firstly, they define the press solely by national papers, and tabloids at that. There are a multitude of local papers out there with all sorts of owners, and magazines as well, all of which will come under the new regulator.

I'm not entirely sure why this has been brought up, other than to cast people genuinely concerned about ethics and accountability as something they are not. In the investigation made by Leveson proposals were made on media plurality, and they were essentially accepted by all parties as reasonable ways to combat too much power falling in to the hands of one owner/publisher.

Secondly, if they want to fight a war on press ownership, they should do that. They are entitled to dislike the influence wielded by Rupert Murdoch and other owners if they want to, but they ought to be honest and fight a battle over plurality of ownership, not regulation.

Meanwhile, the rest of us that see plurality as a smaller part of the larger issue, we'll continue to be honest and say we're fighting a battle over accountability and the need for better regulatory models.

The typical journalist in this country has to know a multitude of laws just to do their daily job - libel, contempt, reporting restrictions, copyright, juveniles, sex offences and privacy just for a start.

(Let's ignore, for a second, that it is actually the responsibility of the editors to actually know these things to ensure that the copy they're handed isn't sent to publication while breaking such laws)

The last thing they need is more regulation and less freedom.

It is up to journalists to work out exactly how they are to be regulated within the framework being proposed (it is, let's not forget, still self-regulation), so if they don't want more regulation that directly impacts them, compared to the PCC, then that should be extremely easy to accomodate. Given the proposals explicitly say that it is not the job of regulators to *stop* things from being written, they shouldn't worry about their freedom being lessened either.

Fundamentally, those proposing greater regulation of the press overestimate its influence and underestimate the good sense of their readers, summed up by Mr Justice Lawton in the trial of the Krays, when he said: "I have enough confidence in my fellow countrymen to think that they have got newspapers sized up, just as they have got other public institutions sized up, and they are capable in normal circumstances of looking at a matter fairly and without prejudice."

Exactly, and as your own publication has reported, the public see a need here...fairly and without prejudice...to require the press to move on from the PCC to a more effective system of self-regulation.

If it comes down to a choice between being pretty, or free, we should choose being free.

However this is a false choice. It is not between being pretty, or free...it's between being accountable, or not. The press, and those journalists writing these articles, are fearing the bogeyman...a shadow of a concept that isn't even on the table here. They're trying their hardest to make sure that accountability isn't mentioned when it comes to Leveson or press regulation reform, and there is only one reason that can be when the proposals say so directly that regulators are not to limit freedom of expression...and that is because journalists don't want to have someone they've wronged coming back and actually achieving a fair resolution to their complaint.