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.


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.


Seven-day-a-week newspaper publishing revolution shatters The Mirror

May 30, 2012

The Rabelesian guffawing in The Mirror’s newsroom when Trinity Mirror’s chief executive announced her unlamented departure is now reduced to a sullen whisper.

Who will be next, the hacks timorously wonder as they survey the seismic damage caused by this morning’s fresh round of top-level sackings? Out, in short order, have gone Richard Wallace, editor of The Daily Mirror, and Tina Weaver, veteran editor of The Sunday Mirror. In has come Lloyd Embley (who? – formerly editor of the People) as the new editorial supremo of a “merged” 7-day-a-week Mirror newspaper.

In a classic example of tabloid double-think, Embley told his shell-shocked team: “This is not a slash and burn exercise. Nor is it about managing decline.”

Isn’t it, Lloyd? Difficult to see what else it might be. Certainly not a strategic decision, made from strength. Nor, to use some ghastly marketing jargon, is it “proactive”. Indeed, as so often in the world of newspapers, Rupert Murdoch continues to take the credit, having got there first with the 7-day Sun – while Trinity hobbles behind, a lame second. If the two editors were stunned by the manner of their summary dismissal this morning, they can hardly be surprised by its ultimate cause. All the circulation gains accruing to The Sunday Mirror after Murdoch unexpectedly closed the News of the World were wiped out almost overnight by his introduction of The Sun on Sunday.

If this brutal step-change really is, in the words of the Trinity statement, “a further step towards creating one of the most technologically advanced and operationally efficient newsrooms in Europe,” why on earth didn’t senior management have the courage of their convictions and implement it before?

Because, let’s face it, it isn’t really a step-change at all. And because, where newsrooms and newspapers are concerned, there are more important things than being “technologically advanced” and “operationally efficient”. Like keeping your journalists on side. Which is difficult when you are savagely cutting their numbers to achieve shareholder “value”.

What seems to have occurred here is some highly expedient corporate chicanery. How can it be that Sly Bailey, the lame duck outgoing chief executive, has been allowed to make these changes, changes she would never have dared to make before she resigned? Simple. The new board, and particularly the new chairman David Grigson, needs someone to hide behind, someone who is now totally expendable.

This may not have been Grigson’s only calculus, however. The suspicion is Trinity used this occasion to cleanse its Augean Stables. We’re still waiting to hear the full unexpurgated version of former Mirror editor Piers Morgan’s flirtatious relationship with the truth about phone-hacking, but last week moved a little closer to full disclosure with Jeremy Paxman’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry. Wallace and Weaver were both later contemporaries of Morgan, who stepped down from the Mirror in 2004. Like two Wise Monkeys, they have joined Morgan in a deaf-and-dumb denial of complicity in phone-hacking culture. Which – who knows? – may be entirely justified. But just in case, why not get rid of them at this opportune moment? They are, in any case, very expensive; and they were, no doubt, utterly opposed to the concept of sacrificing one of their editorships on the altar of a 7-day newspaper.

And yet the real casualty here is the brand. Sunday newspapers, and not just red-top Sundays, are looking like an endangered species. Who will be next to join the 7-day bandwagon? The Independent/Independent on Sunday? The Guardian/Observer?

Sunday newspapers are being eroded not simply by shrink-fit publishing economics but by changing reading habits. After all, who these days seeks the wow-factor of a good old-fashioned scoop over their Sunday bacon and eggs?


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