Leveson and media regulation: the Dacre surprise

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, a judge-led inquiry is now sitting to look at a series of questions about media regulation, some of them related to hacking and some not. To allow the media industry an early opportunity to vent its feelings about the inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson organised three seminars as an overture to the inquiry’s evidence sessions.

Because the seminars were principally about letting off steam, the speakers with the strongest feelings and language naturally made the headlines. But the third seminar witnessed a retreat which has moved the goalposts.

The long-serving editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, railed against the inquiry, which he sees as no more than revenge by MPs for the exposure of the expenses scams. So far so predictable. Then, in his closing words, Dacre effectively conceded that the existing system of self-regulation was not good enough and might have to be strengthened. Quite considerably strengthened, as it turned out. Dacre’s performance was the rhetorical equivalent of an army which fires at great deal of ammunition at its enemy, creating noise and smoke. Only when the smoke clears for a moment does it become clear that the forces making all the noise have actually retreated.

Dacre announced that the Mail would be carrying a corrections column on its second page as of next week. He said that the Press Complaints Commission’s “code committee” (i.e. the rule-writers) should have lay members and not be composed solely of editors. He even suggested that this committee might take part in public consultations. He floated the idea that newspapers might need to appoint an “ombudsman” (perhaps a retired judge advised by a couple of retired editors) to inquire into “potential press scandals”. This figure should have the power to summon witnesses and to name the guilty. It might levy fines and on the “polluter pays” principle, the newspapers should carry the costs of such inquiries. Dacre implied that this newly-empowered ombudsman would exist alongside the PCC, but their exact relationship was left vague. (Complete Leveson inquiry video and transcripts here).

Note this:

  • If any evidence was required to underline that one of the most powerful editors in the country thinks his own business has got out of control, this is surely it. Ignore the bluster; look rather at the scale of the changes proposed and what they imply.
  • Enacting the Dacre agenda would be hard without putting at least some of those powers into statute. This sounds a bit like “co-regulation” or “statutory lite”.
  • Dacre’s unexpected retreat shifts the frame of the whole discussion. Three-quarters of Dacre’s speech gave the impression that he was going to defend self-regulation as a principle, even if he might concede that its operation required some fine-tuning. Not so the speech last section. As Brian Cathcart put it, “up to the point at which these words were uttered, everything…pointed to a long, stubborn and probably vicious rearguard action by editors and proprietors defending the status quo”. The focus is now squarely on what might work better than PCC-type self-regulation.

 

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