Wednesday 13 July 2011

Regulating journalism - what next?

In all of the backwash following the News of the World hacking scandal, it has been said time and time again that regulation of journalism needs to be tightened up.

The Press Complaints Commission has been derided by politicians and commentators alike. The PCC itself has responded to this by calling for a more independent PCC. A statement from the PCC reads:
We do not accept that the scandal of phone hacking should claim, as a convenient scalp, the Press Complaints Commission. The work of the PCC, and of a press allowed to have freedom of expression, has been grossly undervalued today.
However, as the PCC has said consistently, it believes that the outcome of phone hacking should be a more independent PCC. It is confident that it is precisely what the Prime Minister's inquiry will also have to conclude. There should be fundamental reform of the system, as we have already recognised and called for. But the PCC can, in the final evaluation, play its part in this. It is already doing so, and this can inform the work of the inquiry.
 Without doubt, though, there is an appetite for change. With the demise of the News of the World, the collapse today of the BSkyB bid and the ongoing accusations about phone hacking, blagging and other activities at a number of newspapers, leaving things as they are is not a realistic option.

The PCC does include, in its Editors' Code of Practice, rules against such activities. Clause 10 reads:

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.
ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

However, what the PCC lacks is the power to back up its tut tutting. The proof of that could be seen earlier this year, when the Express group of newspapers (Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Star on Sunday) decided the PCC wasn't something to be part of anymore, cut off payments and went off on their own. So, at the least, any future body would surely need to be able to compel newspapers to come under its auspices.

But that in itself raises a further question. What is a journalist? I've been a journalist for 15 years, working on a number of newspapers, but today anyone can start up a blog without ever having been connected to a traditional media outlet. During the Ryan Giggs superinjunction rumpus, claims about individuals who had supposedly taken out superinjunctions spilled out through a Twitter account set up for that purpose.

In its considerations about how to ensure there is no repetition of such activities, the planned inquiry needs to consider the definitions of journalist and of media. Does a Facebook post count? Simply talking about the printed and broadcast media ignores the fact that most journalists today are multi-media journalists, tweeting their tales and rushing to web as much as bashing out their words for a print deadline.

The inquiry also needs to remember one other thing. Telephone hacking isn't just against the code of the PCC, it's against the law of the land. The ultimate censure available right now isn't a telling off by the PCC, it's a pair of handcuffs and a trip to the dock. If the PCC is regarded as having failed, the law is facing just as difficult accusations.

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