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Press regulation in Britain: a step forward – and a step back

An Opinion Piece by Steven Barnett, published by The Conversation

Anyone reading recent editorials in the British press will know that the industry is worried. Following the discovery in 2011 that journalists on a number of newspapers had been hacking people’s phones to get stories, the Leveson Inquiry made a number of recommendations for independent and effective self-regulation of the press.

In a diluted form these were accepted by parliament and included an independent body, the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), designed to scrutinise would-be self-regulators according to criteria of good governance and effective implementation of a journalistic code. These were detailed in a Royal Charter, also passed by parliament.

Now, the PRP is meeting to decide whether to recognise a regulator called Impress, set up by free speech advocate Jonathan Heawood in order to meet those criteria. And, judging by the hundreds of column inches devoted to fulminating outrage about the end of 300 years of press freedom, editors fully expect Impress to be recognised.

Further steps are needed to complete the self-regulation framework agreed by parliament: in particular the incentive scheme whereby newspapers which choose not to sign up to a recognised self-regulator are liable for the court costs of both sides in civil cases still has to be signed off by the culture secretary. But recognition of Impress will be a vital and historic step forwards after decades of bitter industry resistance to meaningful reform.

The newspaper industry’s collective hysteria was entirely predictable, if grossly inaccurate. Rather less predictable was a recent intervention by Sir Alan Moses, the inaugural chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which was established by the industry as their two fingers to parliament and the Leveson framework. IPSO, we should remember, was acclaimed by the press in paid-for advertisements as “the toughest regulator in the Western world” which would ensure that – finally – the press was genuinely accountable for breaches of its own code.

Sir Alan Moses, chair of press regulator IPSO. Daniel Leal-Olivas PA Archive/PA Images

So what was the first chairman of IPSO’s message to the industry he was purporting to regulate? “Government, the powers that be, want to goad you, prod you like sheep into doing what they want.” And he continued: “The essence of successful regulation I believe is that it is voluntary. It’s something that you choose to do, not something into which you are driven.”

Lobbying for the industry

This was not the sound of someone preparing to get tough on an industry which breaches its own standards with impunity. It was a message that might have come straight from a Daily Mail, Sun or Telegraph editorial, a final confirmation that IPSO and its leaders have gone the same way as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which preceded it – swallowed up by its paymasters and unable to distinguish effective regulation from industry backslapping.

That history is repeating itself is abundantly clear from Sir Brian Leveson’s brief historical assessment of the PCC in which he demonstrated how the PCC acted as – in his words – “an unabashed advocate or lobbyist for the press industry”.

The evidence was unequivocal. Under its second chairman, Lord Wakeham, the PCC lobbied for the press to be exempt from Section 8 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees the individual right to privacy. Having failed, Wakeham negotiated with the then home secretary, Jack Straw, to add a new section 12 designed to tip the balance of power towards the press in any trade-off between privacy and free speech.

Similarly vigorous lobbying under Wakeham’s successor, Christopher Meyer, was targeted at the 1998 Data Protection Act, this time arguing against custodial sentences for breaches of section 55. Since this section related to unlawful procurement of personal data, and in light of a subsequent report by the Information Commissioner that theft of confidential data by journalists was taking place on an industrial scale, it was hardly a regulatory priority to restrict penalties for offenders. As Leveson commented:

Little consideration appears to have been given to those who might be the subject of intrusive breaches of data protection at the hands of the press … Yet it is the complaints of those people which the PCC exists to mediate or resolve.

In 2005, the PCC coordinated its lobbying efforts in Europe to fend off a proposed clause in the Television Without Frontiers directive which was considering a statutory right of reply to press inaccuracies.

It should be no surprise, then, that Leveson concluded: “At times, it seems that the PCC acted as both advocate and champion for this industry, a role that it rarely adopted in relation to those who had been wronged by the press.”

Hacked Off media reform campaigners give their opinion of IPSO. Daniel Leal-Olivas PA Archive/PA Images

And as the PCC aligned itself unashamedly with the interests of those it was purporting to “regulate”, it constantly manoeuvred to reassure critics that it was becoming tougher and more independent.

Keeping up appearances

So following a highly critical second report from Sir David Calcutt in 1993, the PCC’s first chairman Lord McGregor, and then Wakeham, sought to assure parliament that real changes were being implemented through a series of largely meaningless reforms such as minor tweaks to the editorial code. Several years later, Meyer announced another programme of reform couched in terms of “permanent evolution”. Then his successor, Lady Buscombe, launched an Independence Governance Review which reported in 2010.

None of these measures amounted to a row of beans in terms of serious and effective systemic change – but each one was designed to give an impression of meaningful regulatory activity on behalf of the public. As Leveson wrote:

Limited programmes of reform have been concerned with relieving pressure on the press and blunting calls for strengthening the self-regulatory system. A show of reform has been used as a substitute for the reality of it.

Impress will provide an alternative self-regulator which is not funded by powerful media barons determined to protect their own interests but by a trust set up by Max Mosley and run by trustees who must – by law – operate in the public interest. With a transparently appointed and genuinely independent board, it will be able both to protect the interests of journalism and ensure that its code of ethics is taken seriously by member publications.

It has yet to persuade any of the big beasts to join, but everyone is watching. Once the full Leveson incentives are in place, bigger publishers will want to take advantage.

Perhaps Sir Alan Moses has done us a favour. He has shown us that, just like the PCC and its procession of industry-hugging chairmen, IPSO’s interests are now aligned with its paymasters. The spotlight can now turn to Impress and a new model of self-regulation which – if allowed to flourish – will both promote great journalism and prevent its worst abuses.


Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Steven Barnett


Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications and an established writer and broadcaster who has been involved in policy analysis at the highest levels, both nationally and internationally, for the last 35 years. He has advised government ministers in the UK, has given evidence or served as an adviser on several parliamentary committees, has been called to give evidence to the European Parliament, and has been invited as keynote speaker at numerous national and international conferences.


26 October 2016
Published By
The Conversation
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CAMRI | Press regulation in Britain: a step forward – and a step back - CAMRI
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