Saturday, 8 December 2012

What next for 'Hacked Off' ?

What next for 'Hacked Off'? *
It's not yet over but there's every chance that we're seeing exactly the "ugly stitch-up" that its director Brian Cathcart described at the beginning of this week.
'Leveson-lite' press regulation that lacks any statutory backstop to ensure we, the public, can hold editors' and publishers' feet to the fire.
Yet another regime devised by the press, for the press that will be no guarantee of accountability once memories of phone-hacking have faded.
It might not turn out that way, of course. The arithmetics of parliament and petition might still see the interests of the public take precedence over the commercial interests of owners and publishers.
Cynical calculation
The press seems to have come a long way in the short time since Leveson published, conceding much, though not all, of what Hacked Off demanded and Leveson recommended. Enough, perhaps, to persuade that majority of the public serially disgusted at the behaviour of the press that this latest iteration of of self-regulation is good enough.
If they pull it off, it might be down to the political and fixing skills of Guy Black. More realistically, though, it derives from a cynical calculation that public memory is short and that nothing in 'Leveson-lite' will stop the press from sliding back into its old ways. Minus the blatant lawbreaking, like phone and email hacking.
Not just phone-hacking
It's worth remembering that neither Hacked Off nor the Leveson Inquiry was only about phone-hacking or other illegal activity. Nor about celebrities chafing at the downside of publicity and fame.
What was under the microscope was the habits and 'culture' of the press - serial libels, misrepresentations, intrusions, intimidation, monstering, lynching, blagging, entrapment. And the arrogant mindset that saw nothing wrong in trashing the lives of 'ordinary people' like the Dowlers, the McCanns and Christopher Jeffries. A mindset that served the public interest not at all and was calculated to turn inhumanity and vindictiveness into publishers' profits.
More than anything else, both the Hacked Off campaign and the Leveson inquiry were about bringing accountability to the last powerful, unaccountable institution in the UK.
Public or 'state'
Unsurprisingly, the press has used the 's' word - statutory - to scare us all with vague and unspecified warnings that a statutory backstop to independent regulation, the "heart and soul" of Leveson, is the start of the slippery slope to state control.
It's rubbish, of course. Nothing in Leveson amounts to statutory regulation or anything like it. Nor licensing nor state interference. What publishers and editors find so hard to accept is the idea that anyone should ever have the temerity to call them to account, to insist that they explain their decisions and are as transparent as they demand other institutions should be.
The idea that we, the public, should have that power - a power that only statute can ensure and protect - is unthinkable.
But as this excellent leader in The Observer on 2 December argues, it's misleading to identify public accountability with state control or interference as the press has done:

"Britain is not very good at distinguishing between the idea of the state and the public ... The public is the space to which every citizen has equal access. It is underpinned by the rule of the law, freedom of speech, tolerance and the spirit that differences should be settled through argument, inquiry and ultimately the ballot box. 
 The sharp differences that have emerged since the publication of Leveson have at their heart this failure of understanding."

Similarly, the difficulties of framing any statute have been wildly overstated.
In essence, it's about two simple ideas; 'there will be a body that regulates the press that is independent of the press ...' and 'there will be an auditing body, independent of government and parliament and accountable to the public, that oversees the work of the regulating body ...'
The principle isn't so hard. And when it's framed like this, it's easy to see how that auditing body, established by statute, is essential to ensure enduring public confidence.
If ...
The Prime Minister's calculation in dismissing the "heart and soul" of Leveson so peremptorily was a simple one, made by a politician whose questionable closeness to News International was something the press never cared to illuminate for us.
Come May 2015 when a mere one or two percentage points might be the difference between a Tory majority government and defeat, the editors of The Sun and the Daily Mail will, David Cameron hopes, carry far more weight than Gerry McCann or Chris Jeffries.
He might still have miscalculated and national newspaper editors might yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
But if the worst happens and the press is left once again to account for itself to itself, Hacked Off and/or its parent the Media Standards Trust (MST)might well have to assume the role that Leveson had in mind for a statutorily backed auditor - ensuring self-regulation doesn't mutate into self-interest and self-regard as it did with the discredited Press Complaints Commission.
There will clearly have to be some body - more than one, ideally, if in the end there's no single auditor backed by statute - that scrutinises press regulation, investigation and sanction on behalf of the public. That critiques any new code and witnesses its application. That can demand action, if only by virtue of public pressure.
In the UK, academe and organisations like the MST and the Reuters Institute* - to name but two - have done good work but have had limited effects on press standards, in part because they're not the kind of organisation that could ever capitalise on public opinion and mood.
Making trouble   
For all sorts of reasons, Hacked Off showed how the public's ill-focused disgust with the press could be focused and organised. That we, the public, did indeed care about what journalists were doing in our name, wanted them to be accountable to us and behave in a way that was broadly consistent with normal human values.
Should it come to it, Hacked Off needs to make trouble for the new regulator, asking the questions and demanding the answers any law-backed auditor would. Requiring, with public if not statutory authority, that the press account for itself.
And, bluntly, if they don't do it ... who will?

*Declaration of interest: I was one of the founder members of 'Hacked Off' and chaired the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism's roundtable that formulated its submission for the Leveson inquiry - a submission that, among other things, proposed the fast track resolution system that is one of Leveson's key recommendations and an idea accepted by most national newspaper editors.  

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