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State regulation will harm local press says top media lawyer

One of the country’s foremost media law experts today warns of the threat to the local press from “excessive regulation” in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday announced that Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press standards and ethics will be expected to recommend a “new regulatory framework” for the whole newspaper industry.

But writing in HTFP, leading media law expert Tony Jaffa warns against using the law as a “blunt instrument” which will fail to distinguish between the local and national media.

Says Tony:  “No-one is suggesting that local newspapers up and down the country have behaved as appallingly as the News of the World behaved.  But excessive regulation will not differentiate between them.”

In his article, Tony urges the regional press to make its voice heard “loud and clear” in the forthcoming inquiry.

And he defends the role of the Press Complaints Commission – which Mr Cameron has dismissed as “ineffective,” “lacking in rigour” and “institutionally conflicted.”

He says:  “Every journalist I know abides by the PCC’s Code, accepts its determinations, and treats it as a serious and effective regulator.”

Here is Tony’s article in full.

It’s usually fairly eventful being a media lawyer, and last week’s events were no exception.  In fact, you don’t have to have any connection with the media to appreciate that the revelations regarding the phone hacking scandal are likely to bring about fundamental changes not only to journalists and journalism, but also to the very concept of freedom of expression itself.

After all, how often do we see a product which has been around for almost 170 years, turn from a highly successful business into a brand which is so toxic that it has to be closed down in the space of just two days?  Even Gerald Ratner’s infamous quip about his company’s earrings not lasting as long as a prawn sandwich, didn’t destroy his jewellery company so quickly.

Everyone knows that the phone hacking activities of journalists working at the News of the World some five or six years ago were, and remain, nothing but appalling, and outrageous.  It seems they behaved without any morality or humanity whatsoever.  And if the rumours are to be believed, it looks as though certain Metropolitan Police officers were not much better.

I haven’t met anyone who has any sympathy whatsoever for the News of the World or its senior executives.  In fact, the most vocal critics have been journalists.  In my experience, every day regional and local reporters (and their bosses) strive to meet the highest ethical and journalistic standards, and  although they might not always succeed, if they fall short, it’s for a variety of reasons, but never because this is what they set out to do.

Which raises a few interesting questions.  The chattering classes and a fair number of politicians were quick to condemn “the press” because of the failings of those who ran the News of the World, without bothering to acknowledge or recognise that there are some pretty important issues for our democracy at stake.

No-one is defending the News of the World, least of all me.  However, I can’t help wondering if tarring a whole industry with this particular brush is of any help or benefit to those who will be deciding whether “the press” is in need of more regulation.  It seems to me that it is entirely right and proper that we should be highly critical of the paper and its owner, News International, but if we place any value at all on freedom of expression (which is, after all, at the heart of our democracy), surely our rulers should proceed with considerable caution.

Let me explain what I mean.  Invariably, local newspapers have been serving their readers for decades.  They have the interests of readers at heart, and they try to reflect the opinions, concerns, worries, and so on, of local people.  They are essentially community newspapers which want to serve the communities in which it is based, by reporting on local issues which are of concern to local people.  As the Judges have repeatedly emphasised in a series of judgements stretching back more than thirty years, they (and increasingly, their associated websites) are our “eyes and ears”.  No-one else will investigate possible wrongdoing, or hold to account those who spend public money.  If our rulers restrict “the press” too heavily, who will protect our interests then?  An emasculated press is bad, very bad, for democracy.

No-one is suggesting that local newspapers up and down the country have behaved as appallingly as the News of the World behaved.  But excessive regulation will not differentiate between them.

The law is a blunt instrument.  Everyone agrees that preventing the outrageous behaviour we all now know about is necessary.  But will it really be in our interests if the politicians go to the other extreme?  Do we really want the State to regulate this noisy, boisterous, sometimes irreverent and irritating, but always fundamentally important, profession to such an extent that we end up like some other European countries where we, the people, are controlled by a political elite about whom we know next to nothing?

The Prime Minister has announced that Lord Justice Leveson will lead a two part inquiry into the affair.  According to the draft terms of reference, he is to inquire not only into the phone hacking scandal and News International, but also the “culture, practices, and ethics of the press”.  This is a pretty wide remit, and in my opinion, the regional press will do well to make sure its voice is heard loud and clear.

And finally, it’s fashionable to assert that the Press Complaints Commission is toothless and ineffective.  I do not agree.  Every journalist I know abides by the PCC’s Code, accepts its determinations, and treats it as a serious and effective regulator.  They (and I) may not always agree with its decisions, but in the round, it seems to me that they provide a pretty good service to the public whilst being fair.

Lord Justice Leveson is tasked with making recommendations “for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime”.  How will he interpret his brief?  Will he use this as an opportunity to recommend the abolition of the PCC and the introduction of state control?

For my part, I hope he doesn’t – but if he does, what price freedom of expression then?




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  • July 14, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Every journalist may work to the PCC rules and regulations, but that doesn’t help the public/ anyone who feels wronged by the media. Just because a journalist/ member of the PCC thinks something is in the public interest, doesn’t mean the public thinks so.

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  • July 14, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Given the depth and breadth of media intrusion, perceived or actual, is it any surprise that tighter regulation is now being imposed? There have been many many opportunities for news outlets to ‘clean up their act’, many promises, many apologies buried within the paper. Even now, as I type, another NI paper, ‘The Sun’ together with ‘The Mirror’ are being prosecuted for contempt of court over their coverage of the hunt for Joanna Yeates’ killer.
    As in all society, often the good have to suffer with the bad, so if you want less regulation, YOU have to police yourselves more effectively. Until then; you can complain all you want about blanket regulation, but as a profession, you have only yourselves to blame.

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  • July 14, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Whilst I agree with the main assertions in the article, there are simple checks and cross-checks that could reasonably be required to be made as part of the decision process – and thereby provide a journalistic ‘audit trail’ – (to which a beefed-up regulator could have a statutory ‘right of access’) which would have the necessary effect without many changes to the adequate laws that currently exist. As far as I am aware, the laws have not failed, the allegation is that they have not always been observed.

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  • July 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Only one change is needed to make the PCC truly effective as a press regulator and that is that it must have the power to force newspapers (web sites etc included) to publish any adverse rulings in exactly the same position with the same font sizes etc as the original offending piece.
    I genuinely believe editors would do almost anything not to have to carry a page one splash telling the world how crap they have been and thus they would take the necessary steps to get it right in the first place.
    This has the benefit of being cost free and not damaging freedom of expression.

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  • July 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    In my experience the PCC was fair and reasonable, certainly until the good Baroness took over.

    After that it came down like a ton of bricks on the regional and local press while practically swooning over the Fleet Street lot.

    And now look what’s happened.

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  • July 15, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Why is it that newspaper editorials rightly thunder against self-regulation when it applies to other professions – but somehow don’t believe it should apply to their own?

    Tony Jaffa may believe that all the journalists he knows are upright, honorable citizens who abide by the PCC, but clearly some aren’t, and the PCC has been shown to be toothless when it comes to righting the wrongs it is supposed to deal with.

    A stronger code with far stronger sanctions (including financial penalties such as suspension of publication in particularly egregious cases), rigorously applied, would go a long way to making future NotW-style wrongdoing a thing of the past.

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