ICE blogs

July 10, 2011

Phone hacking: more regulation is not the answer.

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, media policy, journalism — news_editor @ 8:45 pm

Barry Turne argues that “hackgate” represents the failure of the criminal law rather than the failure of press regulation

On Friday, at a dramatic press conference, the Prime Minister announced that two inquiries would be set up to examine the biggest scandal in British journalism for decades. David Cameron described the deliberate hacking into the phones of private individuals by the News of the World as despicable and called for a massive overhaul of the relationships between the media and both politicians and the police.

The suggestion by the PM was that this scandal had come about in the main because of lack of regulation of the press meaning, of course, in this instance the tabloid print media. In his statement to the press, Mr Cameron did acknowledge that this problem ran much deeper and, very unusually for a politician, even accepted some of the blame for himself and his colleagues from all parties.

Nevertheless, the problem was still presented mainly as a fault in our press regulation and as the specific fault of rogue journalists and editors and consequently one that needed a review of press regulation.

This is, of course, not the first time that senior politicians have called for tighter control on the tabloids in particular. In 1989, David Mellor, Conservative cabinet minister, declared that the tabloids were reckless, too powerful and in need of more regulation; they were, he warned, “drinking at the last-chance saloon”.

Mr Mellor and Mr Cameron, some 23 years apart, had their eye on the tabloids as the scourge of politicians and, in Mellor’s case, it was those he considered in need of regulation. Since then politicians of all parties have rallied to that cause.

Today, press regulation in Britain is already a mess but not because journalists often upset politicians. We have the somewhat absurd distinction of having two sets of media regulation: one for print and one for broadcast. Neither work very well. Our current regulatory structure distinguishes artificially between journalists who work in print and those who work in broadcast as if there actually existed two forms of journalism rather than two platforms on which it is disseminated.

Our current print regulator, if such a term can be used for the PCC , is a toothless talking shop that gives schoolmasterly lectures on morality to journalists who over step the mark, but what is the mark? Our broadcast media is regulated by OFCOM, a bureaucratic anachronism unfit for modern broadcast media in a democracy.

Both current regulators work from a baseline of public morals and 19th century models of fairness. This has led in the case of broadcast journalism to the absurdity of impartiality being translated into the most simplistic form of ‘balance’ and for our newspapers to be subjected to outdated and frankly quaint ideas of ‘decency’ in the name of regulation.

Mr Cameron and many others are now calling for more regulation as if any of the current models or variants of them would have had any effect on this current scandal. This is a typical British approach to dealing with a problem: rules have been broken so let’s have more rules.

On the surface, this current scandal is about the criminal acts of a few journalists and editors that would hardly have been affected by any kind of ‘regulations’. This criminal behaviour is already subject to sanctions that no regulator could ever impose and since the criminal law itself has failed to deter the behaviour it is difficult to see how a book of rules will.

Beneath the surface of the hacking scandal is a far more disturbing state of affairs. For decades politicians and public officials have had a far from healthy relationship with the press. Politicians are frightened of the press and curry favour with it for reasons that should make us all question their integrity and moral courage. It is this relationship that needs to be regulated and to do that the politicians need closer regulation.

It is hardly surprising that giant media corporations believe that they are bombproof when it comes to the law. When the legislators themselves sycophantically curry favour with the owners of giant corporations it is obvious that it will come at a price. Favours need to be repaid so if you don’t want to grant them don’t seek them.

What can we expect now? It is early days yet and we await the public inquiry but David Cameron has already alluded to the possible models that could be put in place. The obvious one is to turn the PCC into a proper regulatory body independent of the newspapers and government. This would give whatever succeeds the PCC the ability of impose sanctions on an offending newspapers and individual journalists and editors. This model would resemble the current strictures placed on the broadcast media under OFCOM. The OFCOM model is itself flawed, based as it is on the faulty concept of balanced reporting and paternalistic protection from offence to public decency.

This model represents a threat to more than 350 years of newspaper tradition in that it would force editors into the ridiculous position of incorporating ‘balance’ into the stories they published. British newspapers have a tradition of partisanship and it is the reason people buy them. Most of our newspapers take a position politically and morally and that is why their readers find them attractive. To introduce the faulty concept of balance will remove the very heart of each of them and take away the choice of the readers to enjoy whatever political and moral position they want to read about.

To wreck centuries old traditions of the press in order to prevent the type of scandal we are now witnessing is throwing the baby out with the bath water on a grand scale. It is akin to attempting to prevent stealing by banning the ownership of property.

Another ‘regulator’ mooted by Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, is to introduce a General Medical Council or Law Society-based professional practice model. This model too is flawed. The GMC and Law Society - more correctly the Solicitors Regulatory Authority - do not conduct their business publicly. They act as investigator, judge and jury and are hidebound with anachronistic practices and a lack of transparency - precisely the problem with the current regulators of our media.

Why do we need new press regulation at all? Since this scandal began with the arrest and eventual imprisonment of the News of the World’s Clive Goodwin and a private investigator for tapping phones in 2007 it is clear that these matters are of a criminal nature and not one of press regulation. Thus, it is the failure of the criminal law that should be in the spotlight here not the failure of press regulation. This affair is not about journalists or editors it is about corruption in public office.

David Cameron did accept in his comments to Friday’s press conference that the problem lies with the dangerous relationships that have developed between politicians and media corporations. He accepted that for too long practices that allowed this scandal and the earlier one of members’ expenses were well known in the corridors of power and disgracefully tolerated. He accepted that such practices represented a threat to our democracy, where the legislators who make our laws and who govern us, the police who enforce those laws and the media who inform us of how we are governed have developed an unhealthy and corrupt relationship based on kickbacks and deals entirely against the public interest.

There is now a danger that attention will be focused on the press and away from the other two key players in this disgraceful affair as if the actual hacking into private mobile phones was the heart of these crimes. The hacking is a symptom of the disease not the disease itself.

- Barry Turner is Senior Lecturer in Media Law, Lincoln School of Journalism

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