Britain’s press has been accustomed to a particular form of self-regulation, which I would call self-interested regulation. The bodies we have had, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and its predecessors, have been demonstrably ineffective. I don’t say this because there were criminal acts – there was (by definition) legislation against those acts – but because those bodies lacked capacity to sanction their members, to prevent such action, or to provide redress for victims.
The PCC established a narrow gateway for what could come in as a complaint and then did what it called “reconciliation” – basically it was nice to people until they went away – and hardly ever required the media to print substantive corrections or apologies: even that most elementary function wasn’t being handled well.
It might be ideal to have a competent, self-regulating body, but it’s pretty clear that this is not available. A lot of people in the media today are writing about the new proposals as if they would shackle press freedom and warning that what has been proposed is a state-controlled body that could censor content. Nobody has proposed that. The new framework will not permit censorship of content.
There is quite a complicated set of reasons why the debate has become so essentially trivial within the media. One reason is that it’s obviously quite difficult, even for editors who are very worried about what’s happened, to side with Lord Justice Leveson. It’s also been very difficult for politicians to take a stand.
After the phone-hacking scandal broke in 2011, the prime minister David Cameron, rightly, seeing that things had got out of hand, set up an inquiry that was to be both retrospective and prospective. Much of the retrospective task could not be done by Leveson because it was sub judice – the trials are only beginning in some cases. On the prospective task he was criticised before he’d said a word, and a very typical comment was that there should be no press regulation; the press should be free to say what they want within the law.
That is, in my view, a completely question-begging intervention in a debate about policy because the point is to work out what the law should be. We all agree that action has to be “within the law”. The question is what those laws should be. And Leveson obviously takes to heart the classical arguments since the 17th century about censorship and prior restraint and has looked for a way in which you take those arguments seriously, but don’t have Mickey Mouse regulation that suits the media but creates risks for others.
When I started writing about press freedom in 2001 it seemed to be a curiously old-fashioned topic, as though all that was done and dusted: “We don’t need to think about it: of course we want a free press and it’s obvious what it is”. And it was only when I started looking more carefully at the classical arguments that I began to see that we in fact have some radically different arguments for press freedom jostling out there.
My perception through all of this is that politicians are frightened. Why do we have a cross-party agreement and not a parliamentary vote? I think it’s like having three small children on a diving board, where jumping into the deep water is quite frightening. So they hold hands. When I first heard of the proposal to use the Privy Council I thought: “That’s really odd.” I’ve come to think that doing so has a certain merit, in that it puts a super-majority in the way of subsequent parliamentary tampering with the system once it’s established. So while I wouldn’t generally think we should do things through the Privy Council, there may be a point here.
Standards on the slide
I think for some time a lot of people thought that press standards had been on the slide in the UK, and more on the slide than in some other countries. I think of serious journalists such as John Lloyd and Andrew Marr writing about it, and you can see that they have long been extremely worried at the increasing dominance in the media of scandal and innuendo; the loss of any distinction between news and comment had become more commonplace. These routine worries have been growing for some years.
What’s interesting is that those worries preceded the widespread use of the internet. They were worries about the print media, and in this country about the contrast between the print media and the broadcast media – where we do have forms of process regulation that have generally produced more reliable standards of journalism. Now these standards are never going to be 100% effective, but the trend in the print media had got a lot of serious journalists and other people worried.
The nub of the newspaper industry’s argument is that any regulation of the press is going to have an adverse impact on investigative journalism. I disagree with this - but I also think it’s worth noting that very little of what the media does is genuine investigative journalism. So this was not a very good argument for leaving the media as it is. It’s quite common for people to claim that what they’re doing is investigative journalism, but when you look at the standards they are bringing to it you doubt whether they are really in the business of investigating. What investigative journalism most needs is to regain its honourable reputation as serious inquiry into what has happened, that uses adequate methods and standards of investigation.
There was also one other political event that affected the news media in the UK: the 2003 Communications Act altered the threshold for anti-monopoly provisions so it was possible to concentrate ownership more. Now, the Leveson Inquiry, and what’s gone on since, has not addressed this question. But I think it’s a very serious issue, perhaps as serious as regulation. We already have print media ownership that is highly concentrated and very largely consists of rich individual proprietors who in many cases are not citizens and not taxpayers, and I think this is probably an unhealthy situation. We may have thought that the domination of press barons 80 years ago was an unhealthy situation, but I worry about where we’ve got to now.
This article by Baroness Onora O’Neill is based on an interview with Josh Booth that originally appeared in [King’s Review](http://kingsreview.co.uk/magazine/blog/2013/10/28/power-and-publication-an-interview-with-onora-oneill/](http://kingsreview.co.uk/magazine/blog/2013/10/28/power-and-publication-an-interview-with-onora-oneill/)