[Skip to Content]

19 March 2013

Stop press: Nothing changes

Stop press: Nothing changes

To see the three main party leaders voting in the same lobby is remarkable of course. It means one of two things: either the package of proposals for press reform is so sound and transformational that it is unarguable; or the package is so weak and meaningless that it's not worth opposing.

So, hands up who believes that tomorrow will herald a new era of quality journalism. No? Me neither. Given that the final package of measures in response to Lord Leveson's recommendations was a compromise on a compromise, agreed at 2.30am on the day of the vote, we could be forgiven for thinking that it may not be the water-shed moment in journalistic culture that many of us have been hoping for.

What happens next is that over the coming months the editors of the UK's biggest newspapers will write a new Code of Practice for their industry.The Code will define what they feel are justifiable and unjustifiable means for journalists to obtain and present stories. At the same time a new body will be established to replace the Press Complaints Commission. This new body will have power to adjudicate on the Code, deciding for or against members of the public who feel they have been unjustly treated by the press. It won't be deciding whether a story is good or bad of course, or even necessarily whether it is true or false. But it will decide whether newspapers and their employees have acted within their own Code of Practice. Where there has been criminal behaviour such as phone hacking, the police will still be responsible for investigating and prosecuting wrongdoers. But if the Code has been broken, the new body will be able to force newspapers to publish an apology and also to determine where that apology should be printed. So if a newspaper publishes a story on page one and it turns out that someone has been unjustly treated, they won't be able to print a little apology on page 47. The new body will also be able to fine a newspaper up to £1 million for bad behaviour.

So far so good. But there are at least two significant problems that are bound to emerge in the next few weeks. The first is that there is no compulsion on newspapers to take part in this new system at all. At least two publications – The Spectator and Private Eye – have already said that they are going to ignore it. If one or more of the bigger daily papers chooses not to take part, the new regulator will quickly look ineffective. Since newspapers are going to have to pay voluntarily for the regulatory body, they could simply starve it of the funds it needs to be effective. Or we may end up with two or more parallel press regulators, with newspapers taking their pick of which they belong too.

The second weakness that will quickly become apparent is that if and when the new regulator makes a decision, publications won't necessarily feel bound to comply with it. There is no statutory force backing the regulator, so newspapers may just choose to ignore any decision that goes against them.The first editor who is slapped with a £1 million fine by the regulator is likely to challenge the decision in the courts. It's not at all clear that the new regulator adds anything to the existing laws relating to libel or privacy, or that its decisions will have enough legal force to withstand such a challenge. Local and regional papers (which have historically been the ones least likely to offend) will feel its force most heavily, as they won't have the financial muscle to resist. National newspapers will continue to bluster about the demise of the free press, but privately most of them will feel they have weathered the Leveson storm and can now carry on regardless.

If the aim of the whole Leveson process was that members of the public would be better protected from the overweening power of the press, I doubt if it will succeed. Those, like the McCann and the Dowler families who – in a typically tabloid formulation – have been labelled 'the victims', are unlikely to feel reassured by this heap of fudge. The fundamental issues have been overlooked, largely by Lord Leveson himself and wholly by the legislators.

The heart of the problem is that large swathes of the news industry have all but lost their sense of public purpose. Instead of acting as speakers of truth to power they have become agents of power themselves. To the public they are purveyors of bread and circuses. To politicians, they are brokers of popular support. There are still many good journalists who are motivated by seeking truth and investigating wrongdoing. But some of them work for editors and proprietors who are primarily interested in the political muscle they can exercise. Most newspapers are losing money fast, but they still retain enough influence that politicians are paranoid about keeping them on-side. National newspapers may throw their hands up in faux-alarm at what they perceive as an attack on the freedom of the press, but in fact they are delighted that all three party leaders have done obeisance by seeing off the interfering judge and walking through the same lobby that Rupert Murdoch and others would have walked through, had they ever chosen to offer their names to the electorate.

The tragedy of the Leveson process is that even if a new regulator proves effective, it will do nothing to substantively change the relationship between press, politicians and police. It represents a failure of nerve by politicians on all sides.

Judicial inquiries into press standards come around at a rate of about one every 10 years. Invariably they recommend legislation, as the Leveson Inquiry has, and as the Calcutt Inquiry did in 1993. Invariably that legislation is not enacted. Sir John Major is the prime minister who, in recent times at least, deserves most credit for exercising some independence from the press. He suffered for it by being relentlessly vilified and caricatured. In his own evidence to Lord Leveson, Major admitted that he had known after Calcutt that legislation was needed, but that he had been powerless to get it through parliament. David Cameron, Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg together were equally powerless, though it was not their own MPs who have defeated them.In this case almost 500 MPs would willingly have voted for statutory underpinning for a new regulator. But the press barons have proven more powerful than them all.

Still, in the end you cannot change a culture by legislation. To see any real change in the values of UK journalism we need to recapture a vision of the social purpose it can serve. Most journalism students enter the profession with such a vision, and many working journalists still harbour it, though some find they need to keep their values hidden under a cloak of cynicism.

Journalists, in my experience, are mostly people of good character who aspire to quality, and wouldn't willingly harm people through their work. They want to tell the truth as best they can discern it and would rather build community than destroy it. But they are forced to operate in a culture that is driven by profit and political power rather than any greater good. There's no way that we could legislate to change the culture of journalism. In a sense it is easier than that. All it would take is vision and a great deal of courage.