Nearly three years ago I sat in the newly refurbished Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow, supervising a team of journalism students who were covering the Society of Editors’ UK conference.
The great and good of British journalism had travelled north of the border and heard the society’s incoming president, Robin Esser, managing editor of the Daily Mail, say that Ofcom should be abolished and replaced with a cost-effective system of self-regulation such as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
His predecessor, Herald and Times editor-in-chief Donald Martin, said phone hacking was all in the past and successive investigations had “found nothing” – it was time move on to “real and current issues”.
No-one in the audience seemed to demur, yet today those statements would be inconceivable – and less than nine months after that conference everything changed when on July 4, 2011 the Guardian reported that missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been hacked by the News of the World.
In some ways nothing has changed since that Glasgow conference - newspaper journalists are still told to abide by the PCC’s code of conduct and a Sun front page this week saying “1,200 killed by mental patients” had echoes of its infamous “Bonkers Bruno headline.
For the layman, however, things may never be the same again. Public revulsion after the Dowler revelation was so strong that the News of the World, Britain’s top-selling Sunday newspaper, was closed down within weeks and the public inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson was near the top of many news agendas for months afterwards.
Since the inquiry report was published there has been a series of dramatic events which could never have been predicted in 2010 - rival proposals for regulation via the arcane device of a royal charter have been put forward by MPs and the main newspaper groups. Meanwhile dozens of journalists and newspaper executives face criminal charges ranging from bribery and computer hacking to conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
McLeveson shows the way
Here in Scotland the SNP government has, perhaps predictably, decided to take a different approach by commissioning its own report, inevitably dubbed "McLeveson”.
Under the terms of the devolution settlement Scotland has no power over broadcasting. That didn’t stop the first minister Alex Salmond setting up a Scottish Broadcasting Commission in 2007. The press wasn’t covered by that restriction though, and the Holyrood ministers, keen as ever to show how different Scotland is from the rest of the UK, commissioned their own report, to be produced by retired judge Lord McCluskey and an “expert group” behind closed doors.
Some have criticised the Leveson inquiry for being too narrow and ignoring the internet – this seems unfair, since the judge’s brief was clear. He was to concentrate on phone hacking and other illegal behaviour by the press, as well as the relationship between the press and politicians.
There were no such restrictions for the Scottish equivalent and it proceeded to argue that blogs and other social media, indeed anything producing “news content”, should abide by the same restrictions as newspapers. Some commentators talked about a new “Ministry of Twitter”, while the Spectator argued “Scotland would not just be importing pandas from China – it’d be importing its internet laws.”
There’s a clear logic to this approach, since otherwise the print media could be forced to compete against completely unregulated web-only rivals, but how would it actually work?
Seasoned observers in Scotland say that Salmond was surprised by the contents of the report he commissioned, and that it will stay in the long grass as he doesn’t want to stir the ire of all the Scottish press before next year’s independence referendum.
The report certainly went further than anyone had expected by specifically including not only news websites, but social media such as Twitter; it’s hard to argue that this is consistent, especially in the wake of the Lord McAlpine saga, but impossible to imagine how it would be enforced.
For most newspaper readers – and despite all the depressing circulation figures, more than eight million British people buy a national paper every day – the differences between the various proposals north and south of the border will seem obscure.
Press freedom or press interests?
Can the royal charter which Maria Miller seems to support really be so dangerous to press freedoms, rather than press interests? And is the gap between this and the charter proposed by the press really so unbridgeable?
The actual code of conduct for editors seems unlikely to change substantially from the PCC’s version , but it would be overseen by an independent panel rather than a group of editors – currently chaired by none other than the Daily Mail’s editor-in-chief Paul Dacre. It isn’t surprising that Ed Miliband saw little point in complaining to the PCC when his chief tormentor occupies such a key position.
Many editors will say that the PCC does a fair job in the vast majority of cases, often involving the local and regional press who are understandably worried about being tarred with same brush as national red tops. But quite apart from the fact that it was ultimately funded by newspaper proprietors, the PCC always faced significant operational problems, not least because it could not force every newspaper to get on board.
The Daily Express and Daily Star, no strangers to controversy and criticism especially in their coverage of Madeleine McCann, have “opted out” of the PCC for extended periods, reputedly because their proprietor Richard Desmond saw it as an unnecessary cost; this critically undermined not just the PCC’s credibility, but arguably the whole concept of self-regulation.
Frequently updated though it is, the code of conduct is for editors only, so can’t really be seen as a way of controlling the antics of freelance paparazzi or bloggers and independent websites.
And it’s always been hard to take assurances seriously about “due prominence” being given to apologies under the PCC system – any self-respecting editor would fight like a dog to make such things as inconspicuous as possible.
Crucially though, the concentration on print media alone looks increasingly antiquated. The genie is out of the bottle as far as social media and websites breaking news is concerned, so to regulate the press the government has to regulate the public’s freedom of speech as well.