John McLellan: Powerful warning shot across publishers’ bows

It seems that newspapers have been spared Ofcom regulation - for now. Picture: Getty
It seems that newspapers have been spared Ofcom regulation - for now. Picture: Getty
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AFTER reportedly tense negotiations between opposing factions, the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions has produced a report on the future of Press regulation which, while not as brutal and as far-reaching as some (including me) feared, still dangles a sword of Damocles over the heads of Britain’s newspaper publishers.

Stopping short of recommending new laws for statutory regulation, or tossing newspapers to media regulator Ofcom, the committee has given publishers a last chance to sort themselves out, but with the proviso that a new regulator reports annually to a standing committee of MPs and Lords to explain its actions and decisions.

That seems fair enough to me, and from my experience of the Joint Committee, it will not be an easy ride – there are more than a few rotweillers on both sides of the political divide who would have most newspaper editors sent immediately to the salt mines, or at the very least Wormwood Scrubs.

The chairman, Tory MP John Whittingdale, has not had an easy job to produce a coherent report, which seeks to preserve freedom of speech but at the same time be seen to make an effective contribution to the clamour for reform, and to balance the conflicting positions of people like Lord Black, the former PCC director who is now executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, and his fellow Tory, Swindon MP Robert Buckland, whose proposal for a new privacy law was rejected 15-6 by the committee members.

What is clear from the report is the extent of division in the committee, with publication of the breakdown of votes on each amendment. In particular, the idea of establishing a statutory tribunal to mediate privacy disputes was defeated by only ten votes to eight, and similarly statutory oversight of a new regulator also received eight supporters.

The report is a very strong shot across publishers’ bows, although the members knew that with Lord Hunt’s reform of the Press Complaints Commission in the pipeline (it might be later than he hoped, but look out for the end of the PCC by the end of June) and Lord Leveson’s big stick to come after that, there was little point in them trying to second-guess what will emerge. Instead, they are playing a waiting game, although quite clearly they expect any new system to include fines for systematic breaches of a stronger code of conduct, an investigations arm that can act without waiting for a complaint and a mediation service that can negotiate settlements in privacy cases faster than the courts.

Whether that results in a body that negotiates compensation remains to be seen, but it could easily be an element demanded by Lord Leveson if it is not introduced by Lord Hunt.

It seems appropriate that such a restrained report should appear in the week after the Sunday Times revealed the “Suppergate” scandal, in which subterfuge was used to expose the way in which Tory treasurer Peter Cruddas was trying to sell dinners with the Prime Minister to raise party funds.

The public interest in the story was beyond doubt, but some of the more extreme suggestions since the phone-hacking disgrace reached a crescendo would have outlawed such an investigation. No reform of press regulation should make probes like this any more difficult than they already are – and this story served as a timely reminder of the function of a healthy, politically-free Fourth Estate.

What is more contentious in the JCPI report are proposals to force internet and social network providers to take more responsibility for upholding injunctions. They recommend that Google, Twitter, et al, should take steps to prevent breaches of court orders, such as led to the outing of footballer Ryan Giggs, or face action for contempt of court by the Attorney General.

How feasible that is without simply shutting down the services, Red China-style, is not explained, but the ISPs are now on notice.

Maybe Swansea student Liam Stacey would have been one person grateful for tighter controls over social media, so that the racially abusive and threatening tweets that landed him in jail this week would never have seen the light of day. But at some point, individuals have to take responsibility for their actions and the law can’t be used to hold back the tide of technological and communications advancement.

Using courts to crack down on services like Twitter would be like hitting paper manufacturers for libels committed by publishers.

Not for nothing is Marshall McLuhan sometimes referred to as a prophet of the electronic age, even though he died in 1980 and his seminal work, Understanding Media, was published in the Sixties – but his theory that our behaviour and the way we communicate are altered by technology and we only realise its implications when it is too late, is being proved true every day.

Stacey’s life is in tatters because Twitter gave him the medium for his disgusting, drunken messages. But his views weren’t formed by Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Jack Dorsey, so should they share some of the responsibility for making it possible for Stacey to condemn himself? The members of the Joint Committee seem to be implying so and are making the mistake of believing big corporations should have some responsibility for the actions of the public, in the same way as Rupert Murdoch is being held to account for the behaviour of his staff.

Maybe it reflects the age profile of the committee, but perhaps they need a digital Canute to show them how futile it is for a free society to seek 19th-century legal remedies to hold back the tide of 21st-century change. The mainstream Press is easy meat, taking on an entire culture shift is another thing entirely.

Question of priority

SOME 150 Metropolitan Police officers are now involved in the press investigations and the number is set to hit 200 with the cost reaching £40million, according to Kit Malthouse, Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor for policing and crime in London.

Meanwhile, 27 officers are tracking down paedophiles. I won’t be alone in thinking someone is losing track of priorities, and while the phone-hacking scandal must be properly investigated, surely it shouldn’t absorb seven times the number of officers dealing with the sexual abuse of children.

Painful lesson

I SUSPECT more than a few people would relish the chance to punch an editor in the face – and last weekend that privilege fell to a member of Forrester rugby club’s 2nd XV.

Of course, all he knew was that he was belting the irritating Watsonians’ prop (he used a different word) who probably didn’t hit a ruck in quite the right place, but, hey, we all make mistakes.

Yes, I was the target and, no, I shouldn’t have wound him up to the point where his red mist fully descended, and I really should be beyond the stage of settling scores at the next breakdown. I’m happy to report that, as is almost always the case in rugby, we were friends again at the final whistle.

What it did tell me was that at 50 I really should find other ways to burn off a few pounds on a Saturday afternoon.

Get well soon, Tom

EDINBURGH is very fortunate to have such an enthusiastic, able and energetic politician as the SNP’s Tom Buchanan as its economic development leader, but the city will have to get by without him for a few weeks as he recovers from a serious operation.

Tom has been one of the success stories of the current administration and is set to play an even more senior role in the new council after the May elections, and I join his many friends and colleagues in wishing him a speedy recovery.

Edinburgh, and Scotland for that matter, can’t have enough Tom Buchanans.