Press regulation: it ain’t over until the press barons sign up to it

March 18, 2013

Rupert MurdochOh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! they chortled in their joy! The political class seems intoxicated with having finally, excruciatingly, achieved cross-party consensus on regulating the press.

Everyone, it appears, is a winner. Dave has gambled – with losing a vote in the House of Commons, and implicit in it a momentous amount of face – and won a few, paltry concessions on statutory regulation that can only be appreciated in their full complexity by a nit-picking lawyer. Ed, jubilant, with parliamentary plaudits ringing in his ears, has got what he always claimed he wanted: a Royal Charter backed by statutory regulation. And Nick’s just happy to be on the winning side (whichever that is, exactly).

But, resonant of the Cypriot banking crisis rumbling in the background, parliamentary accord in principle may be only the first, relatively easy, step in what promises to be an agonisingly long process.

Amid universal self-congratulation within the first three estates, what has been forgotten is the most important issue of all: the assent of the fourth. An eerie silence has settled over the land as the press barons – the mighty Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – weigh up their options.

This is not the endgame they had in mind at all. The merest hint of statutory sacrament is abhorrent. And their objections to it are by no means groundless. Being men of the world, none expected to get away with a light slap on the wrist this time round (in other words, the moribund Press Complaints Commission being given a new set of falsies). What they have been served up, however, is enough to cause apoplexy.

Granted, the new press council will be self-regulatory in a manner of speaking: for instance, editors will still play a principal role in drawing up their own code of conduct. But the fact that this code is to be enshrined in law (however statute-lite) means – horror of horrors – the Street of Shame will for the very first time have to abide by it.

And there is worse. Newspapers are being expected to pay for this new regulatory body with their own hard-earned (and declining) advertising and circulation revenues. Yet they will be able to exercise no veto over those sitting in judgement upon them.

Now what is the point of self-regulation if you can’t game the system?

All sorts of humiliations beckon. For a start, there will be front-page retractions of a size and proportion equivalent to the original trumped-up story; in other words, no more “See page 94, bottom para, far right”. And then, if the press recuses? “Arbitrary” fines whose eye-watering size might actually get noticed by shareholders, and hit the owners where it really hurts – in the bank account.

Luckily, there are a few time-honoured principles that can be trundled out to muddy the waters, promote dissension and avert the awful day of reckoning. A very good one is our old friend Juvenal’s Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? – which might be loosely translated as: who will watch over the watchdog itself? A question that near two thousand years of repeated interrogation has failed to satisfactorily answer.

Juvenal’s oblique point, as far as I can make out, was that the powerful invariably stuff organs of governance with officials who are like-minded, obligated, compromised or compliant – leading to all manner of corruption and tyranny. A fine contemporary example would be the PCC, the illustrious members of whose committee quite recently included Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People – who is now helping police with their inquiries into phone-hacking.

However much fog surrounds the future workings of the new press regulatory body, one thing is beacon-clear: the regulator will no longer be guided by the wisdom of serving newspaper editors with an axe to grind. But if not editors, then who? That is the question. Friends of politicians? The Good and the Wise from the upper house? Well-meaning but naive members of the judiciary, like Brian Hutton who was walked all over by the Blair government? Former senior civil servants who, like most lawyers, are instinctively inimicable to the whole concept of “unauthorised” leaks of information into the public domain? The publicly-wronged but narrowly-focused, like the McCanns, Dowlers, John Prescott and, er, Hugh Grant?

Who, in short, can – hand on heart – present themselves as an uncompromised and objective judge in the court of press ethics?

Without the compliance of the three aforementioned proprietors, whose newspapers account for the vast majority of national readership, these new Leveson-spawned regulations are going to go nowhere. Should they choose to prevaricate, Murdoch & Co will have ample opportunity to rail against disguised censorship. Real, or imagined.

Pre-election COI campaigns get the third degree

March 26, 2010

Call it coincidence, but events are conspiring to make COI spend – pre-election – a hotter topic than it should be.

First there was the unfortunate reminder that public information advertising expenditure has soared to pole position in the past year, comfortably ahead of Procter & Gamble’s. COI increased its spend by 13%, while P&G has cut its own by an identical percentage, according to Nielsen. All in the public, as opposed to the Labour Party’s, interest no doubt: but scarcely proof positive that HMG is cutting back in these straitened times, unlike the rest of us.

Then there was the news that the Advertising Standards Authority has had to admonish a department of state for the second time in a few days. On this occasion, it was Honest Al at the Home Office who had transgressed.

Hallo, Hallo

Apparently, he has been putting it about that neighbourhood bobbies will be spending “80%” of their time on the beat (especially in marginal constituencies). Not so, says the ASA, which banned the broadcast ad on three counts – observing in passing that it “does not make clear the commitment would not necessarily be delivered” – ie, the claim is pure propaganda.

The ban comes hot on the heels of another ASA reprimand, this time to Ed Miliband’s department of energy and climate change (DECC), which had been caught sensationalising climate change. A related broadcast ad, highlighting the apocalyptic effects of excessive CO2 emissions, is currently being investigated by Ofcom on the grounds that it looks suspiciously like a politically motivated campaign being aired just before a general election.

As if…

ASA puts top greenwash perpetrator in the dock – HMG

March 17, 2010

Much self-congratulation at the Committee of Advertising Practice, which formulates the advertising regulatory code, and the Advertising Standards Authority, which enacts it, after steering through a comprehensive update of the code, that will come into force later this year.

News of their success could not have broken at a more propitious time.

The most eye-catching element in the new package is a promised crackdown on greenwash. Nothing is better guaranteed to get the public hot under the collar than bogus science used to imbue an advertising message with cheap charisma. And, as luck would have it, the ASA has just been given a prime opportunity to pillory one of its principal purveyors, in a magisterial display of the potency and impartiality of the self-regulatory system. The perpetrator in question is no less an organisation than HMG, or rather Ed Miliband’s part of it, the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Climate change claptrap?

Sent down from the dock in disgrace were two press ads – part of a much wider £6m campaign – that used nursery rhymes to sensationalise a message about climate change. The ASA found that the language used to describe a future world beset by violent storms, long droughts and severe heatwaves “should have been phrased more tentatively.” Somehow, I don’t think careful use of the subjunctive mood would have had the same impact, even in the hands of skilled copywriters.

But the ASA is here addressing a wider issue than the legalistic application of language. Climate science has been forced on the defensive by an unfortunate cocktail of conspiracy and cock-up. Last year eminent climatologist Dr Phil Jones admitted that he had effaced certain inconvenient statistics which failed to fit his own dramatic theory of change.  Meanwhile, the august InterGovernment Panel on Climate Change has been forced to eat humble pie after it was revealed that its authoritative claim the Himalayan glaciers will melt away by 2035 was completely erroneous.

If the science is that flaky, what business has government being so categorical in its public service campaigns? One answer may be: electioneering. The equally controversial TV version of the DECC campaign has so far escaped the censor’s pen, but has become mired in controversy of a different sort.

Ofcom, the media regulator, is currently looking into 700 complaints that the commercial was, in effect, a form of (illegal) political advertising aimed at influencing public opinion ahead of a general election. Proving, or disproving, that charge will be extremely difficult since, unlike the effect of drink on driving, or of a high fat, sugar and salt intake on health, the facts of climatology are not open to strict empirical investigation.

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