Producing good journalism is not an easy task. Those who do it well are adept in communicating with clarity, precision, and understanding. But it seems as if nobody within the industry is able to apply these admirable attributes to a system of press regulation. As a result, a civil war is being waged within British journalism – and it risks becoming even more vicious.
The British culture secretary, Karen Bradley, is reviewing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which will decide whether newspapers pay the potentially huge costs of legal action brought against them, whether they win or lose. Meanwhile the current manifestation of self-regulation, IPSO, is undermined because well-known publications including the Guardian, the Evening Standard and Financial Times refuse to take part.
I think most professional journalists on the frontline of oppressive media laws and aggressive lobbying from politicians, government bodies and interest groups wish for something better.
They want effective and consensus leadership from editors, proprietors and trade unions – and consider their industry to be already over-regulated by one of the most oppressive media legal regimes in the western world.
We should all want an industry that manages to regulate itself against wrong-doing without interference from politicians – and which provides us with the news and information we deserve in a free and modern country.
Here are my ten steps towards a free and regulated press.
All media groups involved in IPSO need to negotiate with those who refuse to join. They should reach consensus on establishing a self-regulatory body that they can all support and participate in.
The industry needs to take the initiative. It should outmanoeuvre politicians and aggressive lobbying groups by creating an organisation that is truly open and beyond reproach – and not viewed as in thrall to the industry, like the ill-fated Press Complaints Commission, which had the editor of the Daily Mail in charge of its Editors’ Code Committee (it’s worth noting that Dacre was, until the beginning of December 2016, the chair of IPSO’s Editors’ Code Committee).
The new body should be a trust truly independent of the industry. It should investigate, resolve and soothe anger and hurt when journalists do wrong, whether ethically or legally. It should campaign for and assert the constitutional role of the media in a democratic society. It should advocate the holding of the powerful to account. It should carry out that function with courage, dignity and in good faith to win widespread public support.
The new trust should be well funded, so it is able to properly investigate and respond to public complaints of media abuses. At the same time it should investigate and protect the purposes of journalism in a free society – to prevent journalism itself turning instead into a social problem that leads to criminal prosecutions, closures or increased calls for legislative controls and government approval.
The trust should set up an ethical code committee that produces a charter of principles that inspires and invigorates journalism. It requires an antidote to the current IPSO and IMPRESS proclamations which, depressingly, read like the rule books of young offenders’ institutions. Most of the IPSO and IMPRESS codes duplicate existing criminal and civil law and they lack relevance to the complex challenges facing the 21st-century multimedia journalist. Just look at the US ethical codes, which are positive, confidence building and assertive about the good that journalism can do.
Since all UK media print and online publishers now communicate in the global sphere of cyberspace, the controlling trust body should be truly international. It should include representatives from Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship The Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, PEN and Article 19. The biggest UK news publishers are courting US and international English-speaking audiences. They should embrace the traditions of American free speech and the common global values of journalism – independent of sovereign state and corrupt corporate interference.
The new trust should involve the journalists’ trade unions, such as the NUJ, the Chartered Institute of Journalists and BAJ. Having the direct participation of members of the key professional journalism associations will enhance understanding. They are at the grassroots of what is going right and wrong. They can be vital allies and partners.
The new trust should invest generously and imaginatively into a complaints resolution process that is far superior to litigation or arbitration. It should offer a package of non-legal adjudicatory processes of conciliation, negotiation and restorative justice case conferencing. These kinds of encounter are all about achieving mutual consent and understanding. If this is cost-free to all parties there is a clear prospect of settlement and satisfaction. This will avoid the full thrust of adversarial and inquisitorial legal combat. If the parties are not happy with the package of dispute resolution on offer, they can be provided with an open arbitration process that is binding and cost free for all parties.
The new trust should turn the “moral obligation” to protect journalist sources into a legal one. This is the law in the USA. There should be compensation to the Operation Elveden sources surrendered by British news publishers to the Metropolitan Police after being promised confidentiality. The new trust should recharge the democratic necessity and protection of sources from corporate negligence, state surveillance and judicial indifference.
The new trust should be the catalyst for researching and finding solutions to the catastrophe of falling newspaper circulation and insufficient income from online publication. It should campaign to educate young people about the value of the printed form. It should also lobby for copyright licensing income from social media platforms, public advertising investment and tax relief for local and regional publishers.
In short, we need to agree on an independent system of press regulation which delivers justice to media victims and at the same time restores the reputation and role of journalism in society. To do so would be good news for everyone.