Guest post by Barry Turner: 'Phone Hacking – more regulation is not the answer'

Guest post: The future of regulation as seen by Barry Turner, senior lecturer in media law, the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism, Nottingham Trent University

At last Friday’s dramatic press conference the Prime Minister announced that two inquiries would be set up to examine the biggest scandal in British journalism for decades. David Cameron described the deliberate hacking into the phones of private individuals as despicable and called for a massive overhaul of the relationship between the media and politicians and for a close scrutiny of another relationship between that of the media and the police.

The PM found that this scandal had come about in the main because of lack of regulation of the press, meaning the tabloid print media. In his statement to the press, Mr Cameron did acknowledge that this problem ran much deeper and even – very unusually for a politician – accepted some of the blame for himself and his colleagues from all parties. Nevertheless the problem was mainly presented as a fault in our press regulation and as the specific fault of rogue journalists and editors and consequently one that needed a review of press regulation.

This is of course not the first time that senior politicians have called for tighter control on the tabloids; in particular in 1989, David Mellor, Conservative cabinet minister, declared that the tabloids were reckless, too powerful and in need of more regulation; they were, he warned, “drinking at the last-chance saloon”.

It is not just those who chose to be in the public eye who have been attacked; this scandal is much more insidious. As usual the focus is deflected to the ‘symptom of the disease’ not the cause. Press regulation in Britain is already a mess but not because journalists often upset politicians. We have the somewhat absurd distinction of having two sets of media regulation: one for print and one for broadcast. Neither work very well – as might be expected of a set of rules largely drawn up from a morality of a long gone age.

Our current regulatory structure distinguishes artificially between journalists who work in print and those who work in broadcast, as if there were two forms of journalism rather than two platforms on which it is disseminated. Our current print regulator, if such a term can be used for the PCC, is a toothless talking shop that gives schoolmasterly lectures on morality to journalists who over step the mark, but what is the mark? Our broadcast media is regulated by Ofcom, a bureaucratic anachronism unfit for modern broadcast media in a democracy.

Both current regulators work from a baseline of public morals and 19th century models of fairness. This has led, in the case of broadcast journalism, to an absurd situation in which  impartiality has been translated into the most simplistic form of ‘balance’, with newspapers subjected to outdated and frankly quaint ideas of ‘decency’ in the name of regulation.

Mr Cameron and many others are now calling for more regulation as if any of the current models or variants of them would have had any effect on this current scandal. This is a typical British approach to dealing with a problem: rules have been broken so let’s have more rules.

On the surface this current scandal is about the criminal acts of a few journalists and editors, criminal acts that would hardly have been affected by any kind of ‘regulations’. This criminal behaviour is already subject to sanctions that no regulator could ever impose and since the criminal law itself has failed to deter the behaviour it is difficult to see how a book of rules will.

Beneath the surface of the hacking scandal is a far more disturbing state of affairs. For decades politicians and public officials have had a far from healthy relationship with the press. Politicians are frightened of the press and seek favour with it for reasons that should make us all question their integrity and moral courage. It is this relationship that needs to be regulated and to do that the politicians need closer regulation.

It is hardly surprising that giant media corporations believe that they are bombproof when it comes to the law. When the legislators themselves sycophantically curry favour with the owners of giant corporations it is obvious that it will come at a price. Favours need to be re-paid so if you don’t want to grant them don’t ask for them.

What can we expect now? It is early days yet and we await the public inquiry, but David Cameron has already alluded to the possible models that could be put in place. The obvious one is to turn the PCC into a proper regulatory body independent of the newspapers and government. This would give whatever body succeeds the PCC the ability of impose sanctions on an offending newspapers and individual journalists and editors. This model would resemble the current strictures placed on the broadcast media under Ofcom. The Ofcom model is itself flawed as it is based on the faulty concept of balanced reporting and paternalistic protection from offence to public decency.

This model represents a threat to more than 350 years of newspaper tradition in that it would force editors into the ridiculous position of incorporating ‘balance’ into the stories they published. British newspapers have a tradition of partisanship and it is the reason people buy them. Most of our newspapers take a position politically and morally and that is why their readers find them attractive. To introduce the faulty concept of balance will  remove the heart of the printed press and prevent readers choosing whatever political and moral position they wish to read.

To wreck centuries old traditions of the press in order to prevent the type of scandal we are now witnessing is throwing the baby out with the bath water on a grand scale. It is akin to attempting to prevent stealing by banning the ownership of property.

Another ‘regulator’ mooted by Ed Milliband, leader of the opposition, is to introduce a GMC or Law Society based professional practice model. This model too is flawed. The GMC and Law Society, more correctly the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, do not conduct their business publicly. They act as investigator, judge and jury and are hidebound with anachronistic practices and a lack of transparency, precisely the problem with the current regulators of our media.

Why do we need new press regulation at all? Since this scandal began with the arrest and eventual imprisonment of Clive Goodman and a private investigator for tapping phones it is clear that these matters are of a criminal nature and not one of press regulation. We have adequate and well seasoned law in place to deal with this type of criminal activity so it is the failure of the criminal law that should be in the spotlight here not the failure of press regulation. This affair is not about journalists or editors it is about corruption in public office. The journalists and editors are playing on a much wider stage than simply that of modern journalism.

David Cameron did accept in his comments to Friday’s press conference that the problem lies with the dangerous relationships that have developed between politicians and media corporations. He accepted that practices have allowed this scandal for too long; and that the members’ expenses debacle was well known in the corridors of power and disgracefully tolerated before it was exposed. He accepted that such practices represented a threat to our democracy; where legislators make our laws and govern us, police enforce those laws, and the media informs us about how we are governed. These three sectors have developed an unhealthy and corrupt relationship based on kickbacks and deals entirely against the public interest.

There is now a danger that attention will be directly focussed on the press and away from the other two key players in this disgraceful affair – the police and politicians. The hacking is a symptom of the disease not the disease itself. Any changes to regulation of the media that follow these inquiries must be aimed at the culture that facilitated the corrupt practices in the first place and clearly regulating the messenger while allowing unhealthy relationships between the media companies, politicians and the police will do nothing to prevent further outrages in future. For a lighter illustration, see below.

Robin Hood and his merry phones…

Imagine the scene, a new gang of thieves have holed up in Sherwood Forest and are frequently robbing the rich, who travel through there, and giving the money to the poor. The Government is appalled by this and especially so when they find out that some of the Sheriff’s men and one or two of Prince John’s advisors are in the pay of this group of outlaws [photo: Curt on Flickr].

“We must do something about this”, howl the senior courtiers from all parties, “yes, of course we know this has always happened and that it happened under our noses both in and out of government but now we must stop it”.

“I know what we need to do,” says Sir Guy of Gisburne, “to stop this pack of villains we need better regulation”.

The parties all get together and devise a fiendish plan to prevent the outlaws from continuing with their nefarious activities. Strong regulation with real teeth is introduced and from now on robbing the rich is not allowed.

To give added impetus, in future no one will be able to give to the poor without a licence from ‘Ofthieve’, the new regulator.

The practice of wearing Lincoln Green within a national park must be balanced by more of the outlaws wearing Scarlet; a privacy law will be introduced preventing outlaws from inquiring how much the Lord Abbot has in his saddlebags; and the overbearing influence of Christianity – caused in part by the over-representation of monks within outlaw gangs –  must be balanced by representatives from all faiths.

The Sheriff, Prince John and Sir Guy all sigh with relief and merry England can live happily ever after, knowing that criminals are always ready to abide by the decisions of regulators…

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