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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.

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Police arrest four, including Tina Weaver and serving Mirror Group editor

March 14, 2013

Tina WeaverWhatever took them so long? Plod has finally pounced on four miscreant Mirror Group journalists in a dawn raid conducted by the Weeting (phone hacking) team. And what a haul it has proved to be.

The four include the first serving editor to be arrested: James Scott of the Sunday People. Better known is one of the Street of Shame’s favourite hackettes, Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People. The other two are Mark Thomas, former editor of the Sunday Mirror; and Nick Buckley, current deputy editor of the Sunday Mirror.

Senior Trinity Mirror Group management – notably chief executive Sly Bailey and her successor, ex-HMVite Simon Fox – have long been in denial about a phone-hacking scandal within Mirror group portals. A denial which, though oft repeated over the past two years – notably during the Leveson Inquiry – seems to have deceived no one but themselves.

Over 18 months ago, Louise Mensch – a former MP who sat on the House of Commons media select committee – openly taunted Piers Morgan – once editor of the Daily Mirror, but now the fabulously remunerated host of CNN’s prime-time talk show – with complicity in a phone-hacking scandal involving Ulrika Jonsson’s affair with former England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Morgan furiously rebutted the accusation, but was reduced to fuming impotence by parliamentary privilege – the one thing protecting Mensch from being on the receiving end of a colossally expensive and probably indefensible libel suit. Later, she did make a mealy-mouthed apology. Sort of.

Few doubted that Mensch was on to something: it seemed highly improbable that Mirror tabloids were entirely immune to the hacking contagion that had reduced Rupert Murdoch’s News International to its knees. What was lacking was context and a basis in fact.

Piers MorganWe now have that, at least in outline form. And it should be said straight away that the facts do not in any way implicate Morgan. The statement from the Metropolitan Police makes this quite clear: “It is believed [the conspiracy] mainly concerned the Sunday Mirror newspaper and at this stage the primary focus is on the years 2003 and 2004.”  True, that does not exclude Morgan by date (he was editor of the daily title from 1995 to 2004), but there has been no mention of – still less arrests of former employees at – the Daily Mirror so far.

Nevertheless, I imagine Morgan will be anxiously reaching for his lawyers, lest the net spreads further.

Ironically, Trinity Mirror has just reported better than expected results, showing Fox’s cost-cutting measures are doing their work. How much damage the arrests – and those likely to follow in their wake – will do to TMG’s share price remains to be seen.

UPDATE 19/3/2013: Morgan’s insomnia will not have been improved by the news that Richard Wallace, a former Daily Mirror editor (and long-term partner of Weaver), has also been questioned by the Weeting team.


How long before Leveson is kicked into the long grass?

November 29, 2012

LOL – now he knows what it means – must have been David Cameron’s reaction after reading Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press. First came an audible sigh of relief over the vindication of his own reputation, which– despite inappropriate platonic text dalliance with La Brooks, now awaiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure on several criminal charges; oh, and former prime ministerial comms director Andy Coulson, let’s not forget him – received not a brickbat; then a guffaw over the exoneration of his health and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, once he realised Leveson had whitewashed his role in the BSkyB/Murdoch saga at the expense of Hunt’s mendacious adviser, Adam Smith.

But the biggest laugh of all was surely reserved for Leveson’s keystone proposal: a statutory “underpinning” to press regulation. Over Cameron’s dead body. The introduction of any such measure, however camouflaged, would be tantamount to the Tory leader committing political suicide.

This “underpinning” business is the crux of the report, and the reason why it  – like the 7 inquests into the power of the press over the last 70 years preceding it – will be kicked into the long grass as soon as dignity allows.

Let’s be quite clear. Neither Leveson nor any of the 300 or so witnesses called before the inquiry demanded explicit intervention by the state or politicians in the conduct of British newspapers. The debate is a lot more nuanced than that and concerns not whether – that is a given on all sides – but how the current, flaccid, self-regulatory apparatus – known as the Press Complaints Commission – should be given independent coercive force.

The newspaper proprietors and editors want PCC-Plus – no surprise there. While there are shades of difference between the Hunt/Black proposals (both these peers are prominent members of the PCC) and the axis represented by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent, the press is united on one vital prerequisite to reform. Under no circumstances should there be any statutory element – direct or indirect – in the new, toughened regulatory framework, whatever final form it takes.

And that’s just where Leveson disagrees with them. His point is that no form of self-regulation can be credibly independent when newspaper proprietors – whatever their pious assertions about newspaper ethics in public – continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. PCC-Plus might enable them to do this in a number of ways. Though serving editors would now be excluded from any committee of the Good and the Wise, proprietors could exercise covert influence over the selection of those sitting in regulatory judgement over them through financial manipulation. One of the prime principles of self-regulation is, after all, the inalienable right of the industry being regulated to pay for its own regulation. Lack of financial love might well be shown towards any candidate considered even mildly resistant to the idea of uncurbed press freedom, in the form of a threatened funding boycott.

And that’s just for starters. What about speedy redress of wrongs? What of punishment that actually fits the crime – as opposed to a self-administered slap on the wrist, or impractically long and expensive court cases which are beyond the means of most would-be litigants?

For these and other reasons, Leveson seems to believe that only the veiled threat of statutory intervention will give the regulator the independence, public respect and muscle that is so clearly required. Most members of the public, according to recent YouGov opinion poll, agree with him. The trouble is, most of Cameron’s party – the party in power – do not. They know that the backing of newspaper proprietors can be vital to a successful election result; and, once in power, it is very difficult to succeed in the face of an unremittingly hostile press. They also know that whatever any future statute book might say, newspapers are a law unto themselves. And, when it comes down to it, they will portray legislative curbs on their activities as incipient tyranny – and brush it aside accordingly. One thing that hasn’t changed in over 70 years is the truth of then prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s observation that newspaper proprietors enjoy “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” He was referring to Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, whose newspapers had just forced him from office. There’s still a Viscount Rothermere, but nowadays the Beaverbrook clan has been displaced by the Murdoch mafia.

So, statutory “underpinning” – forget it. As for Ofcom being allowed to do the underpinning, don’t make me laugh out loud. Ofcom is out of the frying pan into the fire, in regulatory terms. We can be certain the appointment of its executives will be untouched by the influence of press barons for one very good reason: they are picked by a minister of the crown (currently culture secretary Maria Miller). That aside, what conceivable qualification do a group of career bureaucrats have in passing judgement on press freedom?


The Sun recovers its moral purpose

August 24, 2012

It’s time to embark upon a subject of the gravest national importance: the question of who should be allowed to see images of Prince Harry cavorting in a Las Vegas hotel room without any clothes on.

Many may find these images both aesthetically distasteful and irrelevant to their otherwise busy lives. But, on occasions like this, we must put aside such petty prejudices and brace ourselves to a task of greater moment, even if every sinew in our bodies aches to avoid it.

I refer of course to the Public Interest, and the media’s inalienable right to uphold it. Most of you will by now be uncomfortably aware that uncensored images of the Prince in his altogether have been circulating freely on the internet, where they pose an unrestricted threat to the morals of our minors (should they be unlucky enough to encounter them). Why should a few children be so privileged? Surely it is the duty of all citizens to immerse themselves in such tackiness in order that the Public Good prevail?

That is why the  time has clearly arrived to brush aside both the feudal obfuscation of St James’s Palace and the limp-wristed admonitions of the Press Complaints Commission. And publish and be damned.

Many newspapers, it must be said, have shirked this onerous responsibility – no doubt cowed by the poisonous, anti-democratic miasma that has descended upon freedom of expression in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

Thank goodness, therefore, for The Sun which, uniquely among the press, has proved itself an uncompromised standard-bearer of all that is best in British life. It alone has had the courage to publish something not only in the public interest but, much more important to our sense of national values, something that interests the public.

It was – naturally – a tough decision to publish, and one not entered into lightly. News International lawyers will have argued against further sullying a reputation already mired by the perception that The Sun is a cynical purveyor of double-standards and hypocrisy.

Not so, of course. As no less a person than Elisabeth Murdoch has just pointed out in her MacTaggart Lecture, “Profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.” In the past, and under the misguided leadership of her brother James, it has to be admitted The Sun occasionally lost its moral compass in making an unprincipled grab for profits whenever the opportunity of a few extra newspaper sales beckoned.

But now, revitalised by a moral vigour flowing from the very top of the organisation that owns it, The Sun can proudly claim to have recovered its purpose in national life. As a muckraker.


Grazia and News of the World – they’re as bad as each other

August 12, 2011

Once again, the media has been caught hacking into our Royals’ most intimate details. In this case, it’s Grazia, the fashion magazine, that has been forced into a red-faced confession.

The hacking was performed on Her Most Gracious Highness the Duchess of Cambridge’s vital statistics. The magazine’s publisher, Bauer Media, have fessed up to wilfully carving at least an inch or two from their cover girl’s waist in a blatant attempt to boost circulation.

Unlike the revelations surrounding News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman’s attempts to hack into the voicemails of Harry and Wills’ aides for salacious tittle-tattle, this particular exposé is unlikely to rock the nation to its marrow.

That said, it’s worth asking why these two incidents merit a different scale of reaction. To be sure, one is deemed illegal while the other is not. On the other hand, both activities imply a similar, depleted, set of moral values. Both use cynical deception and dishonesty to achieve their ends. Both parasitically exploit the lives of celebrities, one by attempting to degrade them, the other by fawning and flattering their figures. Both deploy lame and implausible excuses when caught in the glare of exposure – betraying a smug belief in the public’s infinite gullibility.

Grazia, whose May 9 issue was in the dock at the Press Complaints Commission (soon to be decommissioned after doing such a sterling job in tackling the phone-hacking scandal), is not of course alone in perpetrating this kind of thing. Doctoring of images is a widely condoned practice, in advertising as well as editorial.

From time immemorial the Advertising Standards Authority has inveighed against advertisers, usually in the health and beauty sector, who impossibly idealise their models, sometimes to the extent of manipulating their skin tint. With little effect it would seem.

L’Oréal, a recidivist with multiple offences on its ASA charge sheet, has recently been caught at it again. This time for digitally touching up images of actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington.

The ads were withdrawn, but the offence had already been committed. And it will be committed again, albeit in a different guise.

What we are talking about here, to highjack a buzz phrase used to explain the recent riots, is a culture of impunity.


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