Thursday, 17 November 2011

Reflections on Media regulation

THE annual conference of the Society of Editors was held this week at Runnymede on Thames.
The event is always on the home turf of the outgoing President, whose term runs from conference to conference. So Robin Esser, executive managing editor of the Daily Mail, must live in the leafy suburbs of Surrey.
But of course the venue, near where that iconic historical document Magna Carta was signed, gave the Society, true to their hyperbolic trade, the excuse to call the conference Magna Carta II, as if it was starring Sylvester Stallone, said one wag.
The name was also the target of extreme Mickey-taking by Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke, one of the guest speakers. He pointed out that the original had nothing to do with freedom of speech, but was rather a stitch up of the king by land-owning barons. The resonance to Press barons was too much of a temptation for Sir Kenneth to ignore.
He was undoubtedly the star turn, not only using his natural charm and wit to seduce a potentially hostile audience, but also getting his message across with maximum effect.
This was that the Government had no intention of introducing statutory regulation of the media, policed by some “ghastly Quango” as he put it.
But the media in general, and tabloid national newspapers in particular, had to be seen to put their own house in order. The public would not allow politicians to let them off the hook over the recent mobile phone hacking scandal without significant reforms.
Hugely enjoyable as the conference was, the over-riding feeling I had was one of déjà vu, followed swiftly by nemesis of the National press.
As Editor of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus I was appointed to the Newspaper Society Editorial committee and served on the Parliamentary and Legal Committee of the Guild of Editors, the Society’s forbears, back in 1990.
As such I was appointed to the original code committee of an organization called PressBof, a sort of media owners’ cabal which paid for and organized the setting up of the Press Complaints Commission. The committee also wrote the code.
It has been added to considerably since, but it was designed to assure the public that journalists and their employers took very seriously their own ethics and standards, which the regional and local media already did.
There was such a difference in attitude that there were many times that representatives of the local press argued that they should split away from the Nationals, so as not to be tarnished by the same brush.
This opinion was resurrected at this year’s conference, but as 21 years before, it falls flat because of the impossibility of deciding where the dividing line should be. What about big regional newspapers or Scottish, Irish or Welsh quasi-national ones?
Another resonance was self-righteous back slapping for the Daily Mail’s new corrections and clarifications column on its page 2. I introduced such a column on the T&A when deputy Editor back in 1988. When I commended it to the distinguished Editors on the code committee, including Sir David English then Editor of the Daily Mail, a couple of years later they looked at me as if I was mad.
They were mystified as to why on earth they should draw attention to their mistakes in such a way? Well they seem to have finally realized that a smidgeon of humility and putting the record straight indeed helps cement a relationship with the reader.
Whether the public will be satisfied by such gestures is doubtful. Other suggestions included only keeping VAT-exemption on newspapers which complied with the code; a regulated kitemark; and only giving recognition of audited circulation figures, the benchmark for advertising rates, to newspapers which comply.
One idea that received no support, even from another guest speaker Chris Patten the new chairman of the BBC Trust, was giving newspapers’ regulation to the broadcasting authorities.
Mr Patten said that newspapers, unlike broadcasters, did not have to be impartial. And, besides, broadcasters had to have more sensitive rules because of the power of moving live images.
The complexities of deciding how to police the media, without imposing any elements of state control, are truly daunting. The fact that the conference coincided with the opening of the Leveson Inquiry into the behavior of the media just underlined the sensitivities.
It was canny of the organizers to also issue the first draft of a report entitled The Test of Democracy by the Commonwealth Press Union at the conference. It highlighted many abuses around the world of Press freedom. It also included a chart that revealed that the United Kingdom is just 19th in a league tale of free media, even as things stand now. Top is Finland.
One striking difference between now and 1990 is that then the old Guild of Editors was completely dominated by regional and local Press representatives. They were no broadcasters and a tiny smattering of National Press delegates.
Now that is completely overturned. A rough count showed that of 175 delegates, just 37 were from the local Press; 47 were academics and secretariats of organizations allied to the media; 45 National newspaper delegates attended; there were more than 20 broadcasters and the rest were New Media, public relations and representatives of organizations like probation and police with a vested interest in the media.
That underlined a point by former Editor Neil Fowler that the whole hacking inquiry was a diversion from the real threat to the media, financial instability.
The truth is that the Internet, social media and other innovations have left the Press in a pretty parlous state. Advertising has migrated on-line to such an extent that, not only can the local and regional press not afford to send delegates to such an important conference, but also can’t afford to recruit or train journalists.
Arguably the most striking contribution of all was from a young lady who had started as an unpaid intern on a national magazine, progressed to national newspapers and ended up on an important Quango. She said she had never been trained as a journalist and had never even seen the Press Complaints Commission Code of Conduct.
Good Grief! Now you know what I mean by the media industry reaching Nemesis.

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