Comment | Media reform: the NUJ is calling for a statutory backstop not regulation
Arts & Culture, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 15:07 - 9 Comments
Lord Justice Leveson
Put the dummy back in, the NUJ is not calling for statutory regulation of the media. At least, not if you’re immediately imagining Robert Mugabe-style control and censorship. As Michelle Stanistreet made very clear at the Leveson Inquiry on Tuesday, there’s more to regulation than the ethics-free mess that was the failed regulation of the bosses by the bosses, the PCC, and despotic control of the media as in Zimbabwe.
What the NUJ is calling for is a statutory backstop – a mechanism that would make regulation mandatory for publications beyond a certain size. The reason for this is simple; as Richard Desmond and his papers proved last year when they stopped paying their fees to the PCC and were allowed to leave the system of “self-regulation”. Any voluntary system, even the contract version proposed by Lord Hunt, runs the risk of rogue proprietors deciding it’s not for them and simply opting out.
Any system of real punishment for breaking the rules needs statutory back-up – whether it’s fines or penalisation in the tax system (for example, losing tax exemption). Virtually everyone agrees that the lack of ethics displayed in much of the mainstream media shows that a robust system of punishment is necessary, but, to little surprise, the proprietors of those same ethics-free newspapers don’t want to go so far as to commit to a system that would truly cement that robustness.
Don’t forget, ethics do not begin and end with phone hacking. In fact, phone hacking isn’t even an ethical issue – it’s a legal matter. No, ethics goes deeper than simply law breaking – it’s about the media as a source of accurate information that’s fair and balanced. Any group that’s been the target of nasty tirades in the Mail or Express – asylum seekers, travellers, benefit claimants or the disabled to name but a few – will know full well how accuracy, fairness and balance hardly typifies the treatment they received.
A statutory backstop enabling truly independent regulation is what they NUJ is calling for – a body made up of the proprietors and editors, like the PCC, but also comprising working journalists and civil society.
In fact, the NUJ is arguing that civil society representatives should have the majority on any new regulatory body to prevent proprietors and editors sticking together as they did in the PCC. It’s not exactly a new idea, in fact, it’s the system currently in place in Ireland with the Irish Press Council and the NUJ plays an active part. The interesting thing about the Irish system is that it covers British-owned newspapers like the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Sun and their editors play their part in it.
Furthermore, if people had bothered to listen to the whole of Michelle Stanistreet and Chris Frost’s contribution to the Leveson Inquiry, this is not all the NUJ wants. We want to see the insertion of a conscience clause into journalists’ contracts to allow them to refuse unethical editorial instructions - a suggestion even Rupert Murdoch accepts.
Probably most essential to make sure the whole system can work in the future is the return of collective bargaining rights in the media. As we’ve been arguing since before the Leveson Inquiry started, the lack of trade union rights in News International, where we’ve been locked out for more than 25 years, was a major contributor to the decline in ethical standards in the company’s newspapers.
The unfortunate reality is that, in the modern world, we face a choice between levels of state intervention through regulation and rapacious profiteering by multinational corporations. Everyone now sees what a lack of robust regulation did with the banks – no-one can credibly argue (if they ever could) that we could trust the people in charge of our money to regulate themselves.
Yet we have people with their heads in the sand pretending that it’s possible to have workable self-regulation when dealing with the likes of Murdoch and Desmond. History has proven time and time again that it doesn’t work – when given the choice, they’ll keep it under their control and use it in their own interest. And, if they can’t, they’ll walk away.
Equally important is to guard against undue state interference – like that represented by the recent Dale Farm production orders case. The reality is that, if we don’t get things right this time, there’ll be no credible argument against increased statutory regulation if things go badly wrong again in the future.
The idea of a statutory backstop proposed by the NUJ is one that keeps state intervention at a bare minimum and presents the opportunity to create truly independent regulation of the media – independent of the state and the proprietors. This balance between statute and press freedom is one that should make the mainstream media more responsible and, hopefully, more ethical.
Sometimes regulation can conversely make things more free – when Thatcher began deregulating the media in the 1980s, a process continued under Major and Blair – we didn’t see an explosion of diversity and pluralism in the media. On the contrary, we’ve seen nearly 30 years of contraction of pluralism with a handful of media companies controlling more and more of the media in the UK and Ireland.
The regulations that restricted ownership protected diversity, deregulation allowed the Murdochs of the world to buy up more and more of the media landscape. This needs to be reversed and the NUJ’s proposals to Leveson are our recommendations to start the process.