AddThis SmartLayers

‘Regional press paying for sins of others’ – Hunt

The regional and local press faces being wrongly punished for the misdemeanours of others, Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Hunt said last night.

Delivering the annual Society of Editors Lecture at City Hall, Belfast, the former Tory minister likened the situation facing the industry to that of a whole class facing detention because of one pupil misbehaving.

“Because of criminal activities on the part of a very small number, everyone, including the local and regional press, is threatened with statutory regulation,” he said.

“That argument reminds of my school days, when an entire class might sometimes be given detention because of the unruly behaviour of just one child.”

Opening the three-day Society of Editors’ conference, Lord Hunt said the “litany of bad practice” that dominated the Leveson Inquiry into press standards should not overshadow all that is good about the industry.

“It is notable that, amidst all the trashing of the current system that went on in front of the Leveson Inquiry, the local and regional press received considerably more praise than criticism,” he said.

Lord Hunt also he defended his own plans for a contractual system under which publishers would sign-up to a system of self-regulation with big fines for those who breach the editor’s code.

On the weekend that the state-regulated BBC was plunged into one of the biggest journalistic crises in its history, the former Tory minister rejected calls for a new style press watchdog underpinned by statute.

But he denied his plans amounted to a ‘PCC Mark II’ saying a wholly new body was essential to restore public confidence.

Said Lord Hunt:  “Editors, particularly the editors of local and regional papers, have always taken the existing system very seriously indeed. Thank you for that.

“But I never believed an informal system of this kind could restore public trust and confidence, going forward.”

Here is the text of his address in full.

I have long admired the vital work of the Society, promoting and preserving both freedom of expression and responsible journalism, in the public interest.

As head of news-gathering for the BBC, Fran Unsworth has one of the biggest jobs in journalism and she has done a great job as your president too, ensuring the voice of the Society has been heard, loudly and clearly, during this difficult time, always restoring sanity and a healthy perspective to the debate.

I could think of no one better to take up the mantle, than Jonathan Grun of the Press Association.

I must also acknowledge the tireless campaigning, and the productivity, of Bob Satchwell.

Bob, you are a true and redoubtable defender of a free press, editorial prerogative and the right to report.

When I accepted your invitation to be the keynote speaker at this conference, I thought this would be my first public opportunity to respond to the report of Lord Justice Leveson.

Of course that isn’t the case, and we still keenly await his recommendations.

It is only natural that, the longer we have waited for the Leveson report, the more speculation there has been about what it may contain.

That is all it is, however – speculation.

It is patently absurd for campaigning groups to be threatening politicians with every kind of retribution, should they fail to enact reforms which are, as yet, unknown and unknowable.

I for one am certainly not spoiling for a fight with Sir Brian Leveson.

I am champing at the bit and awaiting my instructions.

If, as I hope it will, the report strikes a realistic note and it does seem possible to build a broad consensus, going forward, then within a week or two of the report being published, perhaps there should be a conference, bringing together representatives of the press, the campaigning groups and those of us involved in regulatory reform, in the hope of establishing that broad consensus.

I personally would be delighted to arrange such an event.

I am eager not only to learn whether the Inquiry has accepted the basic regulatory architecture that I have proposed.

I am also keen to discover whether Sir Brian shares my view that the new regulatory structure must be introduced as part of a general overhaul of the way in which we deal with defamation and privacy.

As I imagine you are all aware, there is currently a Defamation Bill going through Parliament.

Its progress to Grand Committee stage in the House of Lords has been delayed, seemingly to allow for the fact that Sir Brian’s deliberations are taking somewhat longer than anyone anticipated.

I hope the opportunity will be taken to create a new, fast-track system for privacy and defamation claims, taking the lawyers and other prohibitive costs out of the system, so far as possible, creating equitable and speedy access to justice – and, in particular, to financial remedy when appropriate.

Sir Brian has mooted the idea of attaching such a function to the new regulator, as a third arm – which he terms an “arbitral” arm.

Personally I think such a system should stand alone, outside the main regulatory structure, but I am delighted the Inquiry does at least recognise the problem.

Understandably, there is much talk about the need for political consensus, so I thought it prudent to familiarise myself with the conclusions of my parliamentary colleagues on the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, on the last occasion they considered press regulation.

In 2007 that Committee – which, it might be noted, had a Labour majority – unanimously took a very firm view against a statute:

‘We continue to believe that statutory regulation of the press is a hallmark of authoritarianism and risks undermining democracy.’

Their report very helpfully went on to define meaningful, effective self-regulation:

‘On the one hand, individual editors themselves have responsibility for regulating the conduct of their staff and the standards applied in obtaining news stories and photographic material. On the other hand, there is the watchdog . charged with codifying standards across the industry, examining possible breaches and imposing sanctions when necessary. The PCC is, or should be, merely a backstop – the system depends ultimately on the standards applied by editors.’

In other words, the key to effective self-regulation is here, in this room – it is all of you, and the manner in which you conduct yourselves, professionally.

It’s no accident that the edifice of self-regulation – such as it is – has been built upon the foundations of the Editors’ Code.

You are indispensable and, without your full and whole-hearted engagement, support and participation, I do not see how the cultural change that is required in this great industry can ever come to pass.

The Code may apply to everything written in a newspaper or magazine, or on a website, but it is workable and effective, only because accountability rests so clearly and explicitly with editors.

And, to those who say journalists should have a stronger voice in the system, let me remind them that editors are journalists too – very successful ones at that.

I think we all realised the world had changed for good on 8 July last year, when the Prime Minister said the PCC was ‘ineffective and lacking in rigour’ and needed to be replaced entirely.

He also announced the establishment of a judicial inquiry into the press.

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband also called time on the PCC and welcomed news of the Inquiry.

I followed those events from the office of my law firm, little imagining that, within three months, I myself would be caught up in the unfolding drama.

When it was set up 21 years ago, the Press Complaints Commission was just that – to use that overworked phrase, it “did what it said on the tin”.

There was a Commission.

It covered the press.

And it dealt with complaints.

That situation has evolved over time, with the rapid development of websites and digital-only news services in particular; greatly increased training and out-reach work; and the accretion of pre-publication and anti-harassment functions, but in essence the PCC is still a complaints-handling body, not a full regulator.

Whatever anyone may allege, that has always been perfectly evident, from the outset, to anyone who has taken even a passing interest in the Articles of Association and modus operandi of the PCC.

By and large the PCC does the job it was set up to do very well; and customer satisfaction surveys show that the overwhelming majority of complainants are happy with the public service the PCC provides.

What the PCC was certainly not, remotely, empowered to do, was to undertake investigations that were sufficiently authoritative to resolve to anyone’s satisfaction whether or not criminal activities had taken place.

A real press regulator is needed – and, in the terms in which I understand the word, the PCC has never really been a regulator at all.

Its powers and remit are simply too informal and too limited.

So when I applied to be chairman of the PCC, it was never my intention to defend the status quo, and I never have done.

From the outset my brief has been significantly at variance with that of any of my predecessors.

Of course, I am responsible for maintaining the very important core service to the public that the PCC provides.

I was also very explicitly charged, however, with leading the ‘reform and regeneration’ of the system of press self-regulation.

I made it a condition of my acceptance of the role that I would have a “blank sheet of paper” and an open mind.

My burning ambition was to close down the existing structure as soon as possible, replacing it with a completely new regulatory system that could convince Sir Brian Leveson, in good time, that true self-regulation of the press really can work.

I had long recognised the immense value of the excellent work the PCC had done – and continued to do – for the public.

I was also conscious of the understandable and, indeed, commendable loyalty to the organisation amongst its staff, its Commissioners and many in the newspaper industry.

Nonetheless, with an outsider’s eye, I personally could see no way in which the PCC “brand” could be rehabilitated in the eyes of the public.

I began work on a model that would retain the existing complaints-led work of the PCC in one arm of a new regulatory body, whilst also adding a second, new arm, empowered to police standards, launch investigations and, in extreme cases, to impose fines.

I undertook this task not on behalf of the press, but without fear or favour, as an independent person with considerable experience in regulatory matters.

It never occurred to me that, twelve months down the line, the PCC would still be in existence, and I would still be its chairman.

Editors, particularly the editors of local and regional papers, have always taken the existing system very seriously indeed.

Thank you for that.

But I never believed an informal system of this kind could restore public trust and confidence, going forward.

My own suggestion, therefore, was that the structure needed to be underpinned, for the first time, by a system of commercial contracts.

I must confess, this was not in fact my own idea.

In their Royal Commission Report on the Press, published in September 1962, Hartley Shawcross and his colleagues also saw no need for statutory regulation:

‘We do not think that the absence of an enabling statute need necessarily be fatal to the activities of such a body. Much of its power could rest upon a contractual basis’.

The contract I propose, as every contract does, will carry with it obligations on all those who sign it.

On one side, publishers will undertake to fund the new structure, according to a fair and agreed formula.

They must also accept its remit and its authority.

The contract will make certain impositions upon the new regulator as well, and those who run it.

It will have to behave in accordance with the law and with the Editors’ Code, or whatever supplants it.

It must behave proportionately and not arbitrarily.

In the words of that great President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, it should ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’.

It is misleading and mischievous to describe the new body I have proposed as “PCC 2″ or “son of PCC” or, for that matter, “daughter of PCC”.

It would be a radically different beast.

On 15 December last year I presented the basic regulatory architecture I was proposing to an array of representatives of the press.

Some of you were there.

A few questions were posed, some of them tricky, but the atmosphere was positive.

And there was unanimous recognition that fundamental change was inevitable and also that this model could work, delivering higher standards without either emasculating or financially ruining the industry.

When I first gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, at the end of January, I was able to share my plan with Sir Brian.

His words to me then, remain with me:

‘What I am very keen that you should do is to keep the Inquiry informed about the progress that you are making and where the sticking points are, if there are any, and to maintain the momentum that you feel you can maintain.’

He also made it clear he was not interested in any system unless it had genuine, comprehensive “buy-in” from the press.

Various names have been appended, usually mischievously, to the proposal for a new, contracts-based independent regulator with the power to investigate, police standards and even issue fines, but it belongs to no one, least of all the mythical “Hunt-Black”.

There have been no cosy deals and I would never be party to one.

And what matters is the substance, not the name.

Still, nothing would make me happier than to see this proposal adopted yet again, in just a matter of weeks, this time as the “Leveson Plan”.

While the industry developed the plan and sought to build a consensus around the details, I set about convincing my colleagues at the PCC that we needed to begin a process of transition, which would ultimately see the assets, liabilities and staff of the PCC transfer to an entirely new regulatory body.

Neither process was easy.

Consequently, when I went back to the Leveson Inquiry, almost six months later, I had a more detailed and advanced plan, but it was still just that – a plan.

To the outside world and to the Inquiry, it looked like “business as usual”.

It has been nothing of the sort, I can assure you.

It has all taken far longer than I had hoped, but I did in time convince all my colleagues at the Commission that a new body was required, that the time for evolution was past and a revolution was now needed.

Having been so encouraging at the beginning of the year, Sir Brian Leveson was in a very different frame of mind by the summer.

I sought a green light from him to carry on pressing forward with reform, but his response was disappointing:

‘I’m afraid I don’t have coloured lights in my armoury.  I will provide a report which will make a recommendation but it won’t be my decision, as I’m sure you appreciate.’

In other words, if you want to spend money on closing down, starting up again and commissioning expensive legal advice, on your own head be it.

Not surprisingly, the process of transition slowed significantly, not to a stop, but certainly to a crawl.

This has been frustrating, but it has also created a kind of breathing space, and an opportunity for reflection on how the new body might operate in practice.

I know journalism is viewed more as a trade than as a profession, but I have known, and worked with, countless journalists during my career.

In my experience, they all understood professional principles and standards and, by and large, respected them and adhered to them.

Certainly professional principles have a lot to offer to journalism.

Four years ago I wrote a vast report on the future of legal regulation.

I recently re-acquainted myself with that voluminous tome.

Sir Brian Leveson would be pleased to learn, I am sure, that there was no trace of dust on the report.

Do, please, forgive me for quoting myself.

In my conclusions, I suggested that the Solicitors Regulation Authority should:

‘Seek to strike a more positive note, modulating from minor to major so to speak, and sharing with the world not only its policies towards breaches or potential breaches of regulations by bad lawyers or law firms, but also a clear and inspirational vision of how a good lawyer or legal firm should look, organise its affairs and conduct itself.

‘After all, the ideal regulatory outcome is not an active intervention, but voluntary compliance’

Amen to that closing sentiment in particular.

I always try to make a point of attending all and any events to which I am invited, where journalism at its best is celebrated.

What a relief it is, to be reminded of those journalists who have excelled at their task of informing the public, exposing wrong-doing or campaigning for justice.

And how salutary to be reminded of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

The brave face of Marie Colvin haunts us all still.

We must never allow the litany of bad practice that was allowed to dominate the Leveson Inquiry to overshadow or jeopardise all that is good.

Now, I have said before and I will no doubt say again and again, I believe the Editors’ Code of Practice is a good code and demonstrates the virtues both of genuine “buy-in” and also of evolution, based upon developing experience.

It is notable that, amidst all the trashing of the current system that went on in front of the Leveson Inquiry, the Code itself, along with the local and regional press, received considerably more praise than criticism.

Nonetheless, much of the language in the Code is necessarily negative, focusing on what journalists should not do, not on what they should do.

I believe the new regulator, through its standards arm, should do more to promulgate, within the industry and more widely, a compelling vision of what constitutes good journalism and a good journalist.

The PCC has gradually developed its training function, but I believe, working with and through editors, the new regulatory body needs to go further, faster.

The new regulator must not only be the scourge of bad practices.

It must be the true and loyal friend of good journalism which, whilst it may not always be pretty, has at its heart, as its foundation stone, the public interest.

Good, decent journalists must have nothing to fear from the system I propose.

So far as its structure and operations are concerned, I definitely believe the new body must satisfy the “Hampton principles” of good regulation – proportionality, accountability, consistency, transparency and targeting.

I would also add my own sixth principle – independence.

As one or two of you may have noticed, on Friday some of my parliamentary colleagues wrote a letter in praise of statutory regulation of the press, in my view underplaying the risks and greatly overstating the advantages.

I was disappointed, but not dismayed, and I remain fundamentally optimistic.

There is very good reason why we have shied away from statutory regulation of the press, ever since the Licensing Act was repealed in 1695.

There are philosophical arguments, given the integral role a free press necessarily plays in the delicate balance of rights, responsibilities and accountability in a nation which has no written constitution.

It would also take time to legislate – certainly many months, probably years.

In contrast, the system I have proposed is more or less ready to go.

When I gave oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in July, I asked only that we should be given the opportunity to prove ourselves, to demonstrate that a contracts-based system could, in fact, achieve the kind of authority and comprehensive coverage we all recognise to be necessary.

As I said to Sir Brian, ‘You’ll never know, unless you give it a go’.

That wonderful comic actor Rowan Atkinson was an invaluable supporter of the successful parliamentary campaign I led in 2006 to remove the words ‘insulting’ and ‘abusive’ from the proposed new crime of religious hatred.

Rowan came back to Parliament a few weeks ago, to lend his support to the campaign to abolish the criminal offence of insulting someone.

‘The most precious thing in life is food in your mouth,’ he said, ‘and the third most precious is a roof over your head, but a fixture in the number two slot for me is freedom of expression’.

I could not agree more.

Genuine freedom of expression is incredibly precious and a privilege to be honoured and cherished, and exercised with judgement.

Those who abuse that precious freedom, as the ‘phone hackers did, are the ones who do the most to jeopardise it.

We must also face the unpalatable fact that some of those campaigning for a statutory intervention may not share our belief in the precious nature of freedom of expression at all.

The abuses detailed at the Leveson Inquiry have given them the opportunity they craved.

When some of them describe themselves as campaigners for freedom of speech and keep a straight face, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

That is like something straight out of the pages of George Orwell’s 1984.

I know a lot of water has gone under the bridge and this will be a controversial remark, but I do have a certain amount of sympathy with some of the views that Hugh Grant has expressed.

I think he genuinely does share my basic belief in freedom of expression and, like me, he also understands that freedom is a privilege not an unqualified right, bringing with it certain responsibilities – not to harass, not to bully, not to intrude gratuitously, always to remain within the law of the land unless a very strenuous definition of the public interest justifies a rare transgression.

Where Hugh and I do diverge is when he talks of a so-called “dab” of statute.

What is that “dab”?

In the Republic of Ireland, the Defamation Act does confer certain privileges – extra lines of potential defence – upon titles that subscribe to the voluntary system of press self-regulation.

There is no compulsion, just an acknowledgement in law that a general commitment to ethical and responsible journalism, as demonstrated by membership of the self-regulatory system, does count for something.

My concern about even a “dab” of statute, here in the UK, is that the campaigners do not seeking the kind of legislative “carrot” I have just described, with the system remaining voluntary.

They are clearly talking about a statute that compels membership?

That would be the end of the free press.

A state-licensed press is no longer a free press.

Because of criminal activities on the part of one national publisher, everyone, including the local and regional press, is threatened with statutory regulation.

That argument reminds of my school days, when an entire class might sometimes be given detention because of the unruly behaviour of just one child.

But even the most draconian teacher would not have imposed that universal sanction, if the identity of the one, guilty child was well known.

To those who claim the PCC can be equated with self-regulation of the press and that, therefore, self-regulation of the press has failed, I say this: self-regulation of the press has not failed, because it has never been tried.

Despite the continuing disagreement about the possible role of statute, I am glad there is broad acceptance of the basic architecture that a new regulatory body will require, with a new standards arm and a complaints-handling arm.

The success or failure of the new structure must not be judged against the criterion of how many fines it issues.

It should be judged by the effect it has on standards of journalism.

If a single instance of serious wrong-doing takes place, yes, that will be a mark against the system – not evidence of total failure, but a challenge to do better.

Equally, if any accurate story comes to an editor and is considered for publication but then “spiked” out of misplaced fear of encouraging the wrath of the regulator – even though publishing it would demonstrably have been in the public interest – then that too must surely be a mark against the system?

Think of parliamentary expenses, thalidomide or match-fixing.

All of that is public interest journalism, long may it continue.

Bending or breaking the rules to obtain tittle-tattle about a celebrity is not.

I know the market is tough and sales are falling, but a line must now be drawn and that line is, and must be, the public interest.

Two months ago, after a consultation, the Crown Prosecution Service published guidelines on the approach prosecutors should take, when assessing the public interest in cases affecting the media.

Possible considerations include disclosure of criminal offences; disclosing someone’s failure to comply with a legal obligation; disclosing a miscarriage of justice; or raising or contributing to an important matter of public debate.

This all serves to bring the Editors’ Code of Practice into very welcome, closer alignment with the likely application of the criminal law.

Ultimately, the really important contract in the system I propose, is not the one between each publisher and the regulator.

It is the contract between the industry and the people of the United Kingdom.

A solemn undertaking to eradicate the unsavoury, unethical and, often, illegal practices that have defiled and diminished journalism.

To disown those over-aggressive paparazzi who have no regard for the law, human dignity or even physical safety, and blight the lives of innocent people.

But an undertaking, too, to recognise and embrace once again the solemn, timeless, constitutionally vital role the press uniquely has, of leaving no stone unturned in its determination to uncover shady business practices; dodgy deals; hypocrisy and double standards in public life; and corruption of every kind.

That is what public interest journalism has always been about.

And you, of all people, know that.

Thank you very much.