The British press in crisis, and in denial

What do you call a group of newspaper editors in collective denial? Try the Society of Editors. I have just spent two days at its annual conference in Runnymede. The theme: Magna Carta II – A Modern Media Charter. Simple, portentous and probably misguided.

In a parallel universe, 15 miles away off the Strand, in the High Court, Lord Justice Leveson was starting his judicial inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal and the ethics of the British press.

In Runnymede: keep calm, just some tacking needed. On the Strand: Lord Leveson is told that 28 (yes, twenty eight) News of the World journalists may have commissioned phone hacking (a claim since questioned by a News International barrister at the inquiry).

However you cut it, public trust in the British press, never high, has been dented by ‘Hackgate’ and especially the Milly Dowler hacking revelation. People expect journalists to act like sewer rats. This just confirmed it.

Written by John Mair – Senior Journalism Lecturer.

Rupert Murdoch closed the ‘News of the Screws’, but did that cut out all of the cancer affecting British print journalism? Can it reform itself and rebuild trust while shedding sales like autumn leaves and with advertising revenue gravitating to the internet?

Worse, is the system of self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission working? The runes are not good for that: the PCC reported in 2009 that ‘Hackgate’ was not really much of a problem.

Nick Davies and The Guardian disagreed and good investigative journalism finally won out in spades.

The PCC may be good as a complaints catcher but with investigation and regulation it’s simply not much cop. Its paymasters – the newspapers and their editors – call the tune and sit on most of the committees. Editors judge editors. Lay members are there as a fig-leaf, but, despite that, they turned out in numbers – retired chief constables, trade unionists – in Runnymede to defend ‘their’ PCC.

The Tory Lords of the PCC Manor, Lord Hunt, the incoming chair, and Lord Black, his boss – the chair of the Press Board of Finance (Presbof), the finance and governing body and a former PCC director himself (it’s a small world in PCC-land) – made a fist of defending the status quo and arguing for a refined ‘PCC 2’.

The audience wanted to believe them. Those who regulated other industries and professions, such as Chris Graham, the Information Commissioner and former director-general of the Advertising Standards Authority, and Matthew Nicklin of the Bar Standards Board had some valuable lessons for getting the PCC to grow some teeth as a watchdog. Regulation means sanctions which bite.

Meanwhile, in the other universe, on the Strand, Lord Justice Leveson was hearing of the phone-hacking ‘cottage industry’.

Leveson Part One will take a year of almost full-time hearings. When the Society of Editors meets again this time next year, the train of tighter press regulation that is relentlessly coming down the tracks may have run them over.

John Mair is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University and formerly a BBC, ITV and Channel 4 producer. With thanks to BBC College of Journalism.

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