The Myth of Press self-regulation

On Wednesday an independent review on ‘The governance of the Press Complaints Commission’ was published. The Guardian covered this report and attempted to summarise its findings for their readers – in particular the list of sanctions currently available to be used by the PCC, something that the report argued needed to be made clearer to the public. They also quoted the response of Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, who points out that whilst the report is to be welcomed, it can only really be measured in terms of how many recommendations are acted upon by both the PCC and the industry – who could, feasibly, completely ignore the report.

The early indications for a more open system of press ‘self-regulation’ are poor. The Telegraph – currently feuding with the PCC over Rod Liddle’s baseless accusations about black men and crime figures – have not covered the review. The Sun, the Daily Star, the Daily Express and the most complained about newspaper of all – the Daily Mail – have not covered this report at all. This is where the reality of the dream of press self-regulation starts to fall to pieces. The report, sadly, places great faith in the ability of the press to self-regulate stating that:

…the basic philosophy of self-regulation… is sound. Press involvement in the system is a strength

Yet the press is not getting involved. Only the Guardian have covered the story and consider how they are scorned by others for daring to raise the issue of whether self-regulation of the press is effective in the past:

if a certain heavily loss-making, chattering class newspaper spent half the energy it devotes to its almost psychotic hatred of self-regulation and popular newspapers to improving its own lamentable performance, then it and Fleet Street would be in a healthier state.
[Daily Mail Editorial on the Commons Culture Committee report on self-regulation of the press, 25 February 2010]

The first step of self-regulation is to engage in the process, not just in negotiations behind closed doors with the PCC or the laughably ineffective and totally ignored ‘Editor’s code of practice’, but to actually be open with your readers about the process. This means covering independent reviews like this, to show that you are engaged in the concept of self-regulation and that you understand that this process only works if readers are aware of the purpose of self-regulation and the part that every reader can play in it.

Sadly this week has demonstrated once again that press self-regulation is never going to be anything more than fine words typed-up in reports like this. For not only do the press pretend debates surrounding the issue are not taking place, they also demonstrate through editorial choices that they have not got the moral decency to properly engage in self-regulation. For example, the sickening reporting of the case of two gay men who won their supreme court case to remain in the UK left us with headlines and editorials from a range of tabloid newspapers that left anyone engaging with them having the distinct feeling that they were ‘wading into a stinking cesspool‘. With stories like these the angles consistently chosen by the tabloid press shows that they are no longer reporters of news but merely being inflammatory, scaremongering and intolerant (often at complete odds with the truth) in order to ‘push the buttons of their readers‘.

The report recommends that financial sanctions should not be part of the PCC’s remit because they would ‘introduce confrontation into a collaborative approach that generally works well’. Instead they recommend that current sanctions are given more publicity so that people can understand the seriousness of any redress issued by the PCC, these include:

  • negotiation of an agreed remedy (apology, published correction, amendment of records, removal of article)
  • publication of a critical adjudication
  • public criticism of a title by the Chairman of the PCC
  • a letter of admonishment from the Chairman to the editor
  • disciplinary action against a journalist on the back of a PCC ruling that confirms a breach of the Code
  • referral by the PCC of the editor to the publisher for disciplinary action

All of which seem utterly pointless if the process is not transparent. For example, do I recall any public criticism of a publication, have I heard about a journalist being punished for breaking the code – even though it is part of their contract of employment and have I heard about an editor being reprimanded by a publisher? No, not necessarily because any of these things have not happened, but because we would never hear about it if we did.

Furthermore, newspaper content is created to sell as many newspapers as possible, so if breaking the code (or simply ignoring it) increases sales and generates more revenue; then is it in the interest of the editor to punish staff or the publisher to punish the editor when in monetary terms he is performing well? This is where the Editor’s code comes into direct conflict with the financial reality of what tabloid journalism has become; to abide by the code – become less intrusive into people’s private grief, less hateful against immigrants or any other target group or to stop making up stories about Muslims or Political Correctness or Heath and safety – is to put your newspaper in danger of losing revenue.  Unless the PCC has financial sanctions greater than the perceived loss of revenue that would occur should newspapers become less sensationalist and more fact or news driven, then self-regulation will not occur.

The first and only rule of press self-regulation is that you do not talk about press self-regulation. The Guardian faces the wrath of other newspapers not primarily because it is a wishy-washy, loony-left, bleeding-heart liberal newspaper, but because it actually has a media section that reports PCC rulings and dubious things carried out by other newspapers. It breaks the unwritten rule that one newspaper should never dig dirt or criticise another, largely because of the fear that if a battle commenced newspaper practices are so sordid across the board that the press could easily completely destroy itself.

Take for example the Independent’s adverts in the run up to the election declaring that: ‘Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election. You will.’ Shortly after the adverts were published Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, and James Murdoch, son of Rupert, ‘stormed’ the offices of the Independent to ask ‘What the fuck are you playing at?’. Primarily because, according to the Guardian, the Independent had broken ‘the unwritten code that proprietors do not attack each other’.

And take one final story that demonstrates that the press as a body is not fit enough to be given the great responsibility of self-regulation:

No journalistic justification whatsoever
No journalistic justification whatsoever

I have left the picture in purely to illustrate the unnecessary identification of the deceased and to highlight the complete lack of dignity with which this ‘story’ is covered (I blacked out the face and name out of respect and will not be linking to any of the articles). This ‘story’ is the result of an inquest carried out to ascertain as best as possible the reason why a young women died, so that her family and friends could perhaps begin to come to terms with such a sudden and unexpected death. It was the perfect opportunity for the press to demonstrate that they appreciate what self-regulation means; the journalists involved should have realised that there was no journalistic justification for printing this story and that to do so would cause untold further suffering for the family and friends of the deceased.

Yet, the Daily Mail and Metro newspapers published this story and it has been picked up and republished by media sites all over the world, inviting not just shock from commenters who were appalled that journalists had stooped so low as to publish it, but also sniggers from people who seem to have lost their basic humanity. The life of this young woman – 30 years of it – her interactions with the world, relationships, hopes and dreams and personality have been wiped out so the Daily Mail and Metro could fill some whitespace and invite people to raise a snigger.

The tabloid press are an absolute disgrace and completely unfit for any form of self-regulation and it cannot be repeated enough that Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is the current Chair of the Editor’s code, yet he also presides over the most complained about newspaper in the United Kingdom and he sees fit to print abhorrently invasive and disrespectful stories like this.

The only effective form of press regulation currently available to the public is the boycott of tabloid newspapers, and sadly in this area I am sure I am only preaching to the converted.

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