A couple of months ago, I booked a one-day media law course for myself and some of The Stage‘s columnists, courtesy of the PPA. I hadn’t imagined that the training would take place at a time when journalistic ethics and issue of legality in the media is at the forefront of the nation’s headlines.
The disgraceful actions of some people at News International – and the ongoing disputes about who knew what when, who lied to which investigating authority and just what it was about multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch that attracted Wendi Deng – has already cost one newspaper, a number of chief executives and two of the Metropolitan Police Service’s most senior officers. It’s not inconceivable that further resignations, and criminal prosecutions, will follow.
The role of the Press Complaints Commission has been called into question here, especially after its initial enquiry found nothing amiss at News International, a result of the company withholding evidence.
It seems inevitable that the PCC will be replaced, following the Government’s wide-ranging public inquiry into phone hacking in particular and the press in general. But what would replace it?
The PCC Editors’ code is actually a very sensible framework for allowing journalists to go about the job of reporting sensibly and ethically. It states very clearly what is and isn’t acceptable, and those occasions where a public interest defence may be used in justification. It’s pretty clear that if the News of the World had adhered to the Editors’ code, NI would not be in the state of crisis it has found itself in.
But while the Editors’ code is sensible, it’s how breaches of the code are handled that is really at issue. There’s so little comeback for any newspapers that it must be tempting for the big papers to ignore it altogether – as, indeed, Northern & Shell have done: by withdrawing the subscription to the PCC’s funding body, PressBof, the company’s papers – the Daily Star, Daily Star Sunday, Daily Express and Sunday Express – have in effect opted out of PCC jurisdiction altogether.
This means that, while the PCC’s Editors’ code is good on paper, in practice it’s easily circumvented. Anything that replaces it needs to ensure that it covers all national and regional newspapers, and that when a paper breaches the code it feels the pain of having done so.
Other questions do crop up. As print circulations drop and readerships move online, is it feasible that websites with a print heritage are tightly regulated, while new start-ups have no independent oversight at all? If the PCC or its replacement were to move from self-regulation to some form of statutory body, how can we ensure that it cannot be subject to undue political interference?
Hopefully such questions can be answered before the PCC gets reformed and/or replaced. Of course, any spotlight thrown on press regulation shouldn’t detract from the illegality of News International, its employees and the private detectives it employed – and, indeed, any other news organisations who have indulged in similar practices.