I support a free press. Or rather what passes in the UK for a free press. But with freedom (or power) must come responsibility. And those Free-Pressers drinking in the last chance saloon have just had their drinks spiked by their own boozing buddies.
As a Press Complaints Commissioner, the former, traduced, overseer, complaints arbiter and standards-setter for newspapers, I do believe that the left and progressive causes actually have more to fear from the death or diminishment of self–regulation than right wing or conservative counterparts. But what has happened in this election campaign just ended has prompted a rethink.
Newspapers have always been regarded and regulated differently, say, to broadcast media. No requirement for impartiality but an absolute need to differentiate option from fact. But oh-my-goodness, must the editorial directors and proprietors of some newspapers been worried over the last few days. What else could justify such an onslaught of aggressive, hysterical, arguably misleading and inaccurate coverage in the Express, the Mail and the London Evening Standard particularly? (I’ve not included The Sun – that is in a special category all of its own)
Actually, discount the Express. In the last election, they were a harbinger for UKIP. Europhile. Firmly and disappointedly to the right of mainstream Conservatism. Let’s also dismiss if we may the Standard. Oh George – with you as editor how can we be sure of any greater basis for your coverage than personal preferences, though your revenge on May, Johnson et al has been entertaining.
Unless I’m mistaken that leaves the Mail, editor one Paul Dacre. I’m afraid he’s lost the plot this time. Having bashed judges – indeed the whole judiciary – over Gina Miller’s “Parliament Must Scrutinise Brexit” case, outed so-called “saboteurs” and then spent thirteen – yes thirteen – pages accusing Corbyn, McConnell and Abbot of being “apologists for terrorism”.
Now this may or may not be a breach of the Editors’ Code of Conduct – the standards to which most publications are obliged to adhere, but actually that has been eclipsed. The overwhelming bias in their coverage is not a problem so long as it can be presented as opinion and not fact. But the weight, volume, intensity of the coverage has to cause pause for thought.
And during that pause let’s consider whether or not this is in any way reasonable. I mean the newspapers can’t have it both ways – either they are essential organs for the functioning of democracy, or they have been overtaken by on-line news media from which most people get their information. If it’s the former, there is an obligation on them to act responsibly, if the latter they probably can’t complain about a more onerous form of regulation.
Strange as it may seem, I believe that newspapers are indeed essential for our daily life and democracy. They retain, despite everything, a special place in our opinion formation. But their impact is augmented by a significant on-line presence – none more so than the Mail.
So…. Newspapers matter. They have an agenda-setting quality that most internet outputs don’t. And unlike the internet, the debate on regulation is one that has traction. Remember Leveson?
Leveson, you will of course recall, was the public enquiry into newspapers following the phone hacking scandal. The self-regulatory successor to the PCC that it precipitated, IPSO, has all-but-silenced it’s rational critics by securing admirable deals on funding, changes in the Code of Conduct and hard-wiring attention to standards into how newspapers operate. The Government-backed alternative regulator, IMPRESS has virtually nothing to show for its efforts or to justify its existence. And the finer points of the Leveson report itself? No reference, whatsoever, in the Conservative manifesto. In short, Leveson is dead.
I’m shedding no tears, to be honest. What a dog’s dinner. Or all things to all people. The cathartic effect was undoubted, and necessary, but let me say clearly that Leveson was lazy. His voluminous report was too much cut-and-paste and too little original thought. But if Leveson has run out of gas, what do we do if you share my view that the Mail, Express and Standard have been out-of-order?
So here’s my plan: Once “purdah” (surely we can up with a better term?) is declared, national newspapers have to comply with the Ofcom rules on balance that apply to broadcasters.
Who could object? And if they do, why not consider some alternatives: All comment pieces to be clearly presented, perhaps on different coloured paper to news, reviews and sport? Every article on an election issue to be referred to Full Fact before publication?
All this is, of course, easier said than done. But if Paul Dacre squeals in complaint, he only has himself to blame. Maybe, as others have said, it is simply time for him to go. But then again, looking at last night’s results, you could say where’s the worry?