The week in media started off with a bang, or perhaps a harumph, with a Radio 4 discussion (get it here) between the venerable chairs of the Media Standards Trust (David Bell) and the Press Complaints Commission (Christopher Meyer). Two Sirs, if you care about such things. A frank exchange of views, perhaps. The subject was the publication of the MST’s report, A More Accountable Press: Part 1. The Trust is a new charitable organisation: it’s funded by the likes of the Rowntree Trust, the MacArthur Foundation and various others, and has some logistical support from and overlap with Common Purpose (an organisation that is the subject of some amusing conspiracy theories) and this is its first big splash, though it has been involved in other projects since being founded a couple of years ago, like the wonderful Orwell Prize.
Reaction was swift online and in print too – here are some of the interesting comments I noticed, followed by some brief observations of my own (in square brackets after the comments, and also at the end of the post). Links are to the column or post in question.
Peter Wilby says that the report is ‘hard to disagree with’, but concludes:
The PCC is a muddle that needs sorting out. But I suspect it will always have to make it up as it goes along, operating pragmatically rather than following a rigid code. In the end, the only thing worth protecting the public against is a press that lacks diversity of outlook and lacks the courage to push boundaries and take risks.
Roy Greenslade is particularly interested in the PCC’s remit and structure, but wonders what’s going to happen to the report:
My initial reaction is that it will be pooh-poohed by the majority of the journalists – and by the PCC’s members and staff – because it fails to take account of history, whether it be the history of the press or the history of self-regulation. However, it does raise several questions that we should not ignore.
Charlie Beckett (LSE) is interested in the work that the Trust is doing, but critical of some elements of the report:
In the end I profoundly disagree with their general idea that more regulation and government intervention is the answer. ‘Better an imperfect press than a muzzled one’ is my knee-jerk reaction. Newspapers are already losing their grip on public discourse and their power over public life is waning. The Internet offers greater accountability and transparency through market forces and open communication. So why raise the spectre of old-fashioned control, censure and regulation through central government? Are there ANY examples anywhere in the world where that has not led to greater secrecy, corruption and lower standards of journalism? I find the MST stance confusing. Sir David is no advocate of government intervention. I have recently heard him defend the private sector free media as a business model and a way of upholding standards. Unless, of course, he means this to be true only in the case of the Financial Times.
[For what it’s worth, I don’t accept that the Internet’s market forces and open communication necessarily do better than the traditional press – and those two aspects of market and communications can certainly contradict each other. Beckett does make a very helpful suggestion that the next stage of the MST work should look at how ‘new technologies and new production processes can improve journalism as a whole’ rather than getting involved in a bunfight with the PCC (like this morning’s one, I guess!) – assuming the Trust can avoid the trap of technological determinism and the temptation to hug the Internet tight as the answer to all of our problems, this would be particularly interesting to see.]
Steven Glover wonders what’s going on:
So why produce this report now? Might the Media Standards Trust, founded in 2006, be looking around for a justification for its existence? The report cites a YouGov poll that suggests people’s trust in journalists has declined, but so it has, albeit to a lesser extent, in respect of every profession. I don’t get the sense that the man propping up the bar at the Dog and Duck is more vexed by the press than he used to be.
[I’m not entirely sold on the use of the YouGov poll – I’m not sure that it adds all that much to the report but it has dominated much of the reaction.]
Martin Moore, commenting on Charlie Beckett’s blog post, responds to this charge, saying that “we did speak to the PCC. To the Director, and to the Deputy Director. And we made a public call for them to conduct a review last summer – on which we said we were happy to collaborate. The call was ignored.” [While it’s interesting to see the response, I would not put too much emphasis on what contacts actually took place – in this context (analysis and agitation and veering towards the academic), direct engagement with the body under discussion is not required; from my ivory tower, I certainly don’t see such conversations as an essential aspect of any review of a body like the PCC, though sometimes it can add value to take this approach.]
And some parting shots:
- I see a note towards the end that the Trust will look at other systems, including that of Ireland. That will indeed be interesting – a statutory Press Council was proposed some years ago, greeted with dismay by the industry, and the current solution is a co-regulatory Press Council, or at least will be once the legislation that recognises it, the Defamation Bill, ever gets through the Oireachtas (parliament) (Detailed coverage on the Bill from cearta.ie here)
- A point on convergence is going to need much more detailed consideration – the PCC is currently dealing with videos on the websites of newspapers, and that area is going to start looking awfully crowded
- I think the report missed a trick in concentrating, while reviewing transparency, effectiveness, etc. on the National Consumer Council ‘guidelines’ for self-regulation – there are questions that can be asked about the legal status of the Press Complaints Commission that would have added to the analysis under this heading. That would probably be of interest to me and about seven others, but it’s still an important point. I might well make that point in the consultation for Part 2
- In his piece, Roy Greenslade mentions the impact of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s interesting to see the comments of Jack Straw last week, suggesting that the whole question of privacy and the media was being kept under review. This was in part a response to the suggestions from Paul Dacre last year (cited on a number of occasions in the report, and contained in his speech here) that the judge-made law (or the Eady-made law) on this matter was undemocratic and illegitimate.