Ewan Crawford: Statutory regulation threat hovers over press

Many high-profile figures, including Rupert Murdoch, have appeared at inquiry. Picture: Reuters
Many high-profile figures, including Rupert Murdoch, have appeared at inquiry. Picture: Reuters
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AS NEWSPAPERS await Lord Leveson’s inquiry findings with bated breath, what action the government chooses to take will affect us all, writes Ewan Crawford

IT SEEMS hard to believe now, but the last time the press was seriously threatened with statutory regulation, one “newspaper” decided it was a good time to enter a hospital and take photographs of an actor who was recovering from brain surgery after a serious car crash.

The Sunday Sport, known among other things for publishing a picture of a cow with markings apparently resembling the face of football pundit Jimmy Hill, clearly took the threat as seriously as most sensible people did of its stories: in other words, not very seriously at all.

In one of the worst ever examples of newspaper behaviour, it outrageously tricked its way into the hospital room of the ’Allo ’Allo star, Gordon Kaye. This was despite the fact newspapers were being warned at the time that they were drinking in the last chance saloon and that, if self-regulation failed to work, the government would intervene.

Since those days, quite a lot has changed. In particular the UK now has what is in effect a powerful privacy law through the Human Rights Act.

That law means it is inconceivable that a newspaper could act today in the way the Sunday Sport did then without incurring a hefty fine.

But, for the moment at least, and despite these new privacy rights, the British press is still regulated by itself, through the soon to be abolished Press Complaints Commission.

On Thursday, Lord Leveson will deliver his report on the future of press regulation and the Prime Minister will have to decide what to do with his recommendations.

David Cameron set up the inquiry following the phone hacking scandal and allegations surrounding his then press spokesman and ex-News of the World editor, Andy Coulson.

It might have seemed like a good idea to deflect some awkward questions, but the inquiry has proved very difficult for the Prime Minister, not least for exposing some embarrassing text messages he sent to the former Sun editor, Rebekah Brooks.

There is growing speculation that Lord Leveson will provide him with a further headache by suggesting an end to self-regulation.

Intriguingly, it should be remembered that this is a devolved issue and therefore the Scottish Parliament would have to approve any move to a statutory system here.

Depending on who you believe, this could either be categorised as independent regulation, underpinned by statute, or statutory control of the press.

Some of those who talk about statutory control say this could be the beginning of the end for a free press in this country.

On the other side are those, like the actor Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off campaign, who believe it is now essential to take regulation out of the hands of the papers themselves. Anyone reading Grant’s witness statement to the inquiry can understand his feelings on this matter. He has clearly been treated dreadfully by the tabloid press.

What is being suggested by campaign group Hacked Off, and what they hope Leveson will recommend, is a system similar to that which regulates broadcasting.

Commercial broadcast journalists are regulated by Ofcom, which has the power to levy fines or, in the most extreme cases, even take stations off the air. Journalists at the BBC are subject to the corporation’s Editorial Guidelines (although the BBC is also subject to some, but not all, sections of the Ofcom code).

Despite the recent Newsnight disasters, it is argued that broadcasters have maintained their vital role in acting as an effective watchdog on those in power without engaging in gross intrusions into privacy. Why not then extend this system to all journalists, regardless of whether they report for print, broadcast or online?

Having worked as both a newspaper reporter and as a BBC journalist, I have operated under both print self-regulation and the broadcasting codes.

In truth, there were few differences. But that was because I spent most of my print career with regional titles in England, such as the esteemed East Anglian Daily Times, which didn’t exactly operate as a lawless wild west publication as it reported life in the county of Suffolk.

Few people are also surely arguing that newspapers should be compelled to follow the same rules on impartiality as broadcasters.

Instead, statutory regulation is aimed more at cleaning up the worst excesses of the tabloids. But reading Hugh Grant’s testimony to Leveson, it seems that much of what he suffered involved breaches of the existing criminal law, ranging from burglary to having his phone hacked.

If a newspaper is prepared to break into someone’s flat, is it really going to be deterred by a statutory code?

Yesterday, BBC Scotland revealed alarming claims of cover-ups in the health service following medical mistakes, and yet there can be few organisations more tightly regulated than the NHS. A statutory code therefore offers no guarantee that unethical or criminal behaviour will be curtailed.

Although some of the claims about the death of democracy and freedom of speech are hysterical, I also believe there is a very real risk that if politicians legislate to regulate the press they may feel they can come back for more restrictive curbs in the future.

What is important is for newspaper staff to have the confidence to speak out if they feel they are being asked to step over the line. There should be a proper investigations body with the power to fine – and newspapers should be pursued vigorously if they break the law.

It also seems fair that if a paper prints an incorrect story on its front page, then any correction should also be on page one, with equal prominence.

More than anything it is to be hoped that Leveson has provided a shock to the system, and if the press does escape statutory regulation this time around, it must know that there will be no more last chances.