'Baby steps' welcomed for new UK press regulator

by Jane Whyatt

Britain’s newspapers, still policing themselves even after the phone hacking scandal and Leveson inquiry, now have an alternative regulator.

IMPRESS, a crowd-funded regulation system, has announced the first titles that will be governed by its regime. They include the left-liberal New Internationalist magazine and a handful of hyperlocal news websites.

Steven Barrnett Professor Steven Barnett. Picture by Hacked Off

Welcoming the new initiative, Steve Barnett of the Hacked Off campaign said:

It’s baby steps at the moment. But it is a very important new development.

FACT BOX on the UK hacking scandal

  • In 2011 it was revealed that journalists on the News of the World, Sun and Daily Mirror were hacking into voicemails, medical records and other confidential data to gain material for stories.
  • Victims included celebrities such as Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller and ordinary people like the family of Milly Dowler, a teenage girl who went missing. News of the World staff accessed Milly’s mobile phone, listening to her messages. This led the family to believe she was still alive, whereas in fact she had been murdered.
  • These incidents led to an advertisers’ boycott and the News of the World closed down on 10th July 2011. It was part of  News Group (owned by Rupert Murdoch) and it has been replaced by the Sun on Sunday.
  • A  12-month public inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson heard evidence on hacking and recommended that Parliament should set up a new regulatory body. MPs voted against it.
  • The Hacked Off campaign was launched to press for Leveson’s recommendations to be made law. Instead the newspaper industry reformed the Press Complaints Commission and called it Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), financed and staffed by senior editors with former judge Alan Moses in the chair.
  • IMPRESS was started as an alternative to IPSO that would set ethical standards of journalism and include a whistleblowing hotline for journalists.
  • Following a police investigation former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, a PR adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, was jailed. He was the highest-profile journalist of 104 who were arrested. The Crown Prosecution Service has decided against further prosecutions of reporters on the Daily Mirror. But legal representatives of the victims may still appeal against this decision.
Hugh Grant Hugh Grant. Picture by Hacked Off

So even after almost five years of police inquiries and the comprehensive public inquiry by Leveson the British system of self-regulation of newspapers remains largely unchanged, with the new IMPRESS startup as the only innovation. ECPMF's Jane Whyatt interviews Steve Barnett of Hacked Off to find out how the campaign intends to pursue its goals:

ECPMF: was Leveson a total waste of time and money?

Categorically not. It was essential for uncovering the practices in Fleet Street which were more about bullying, harassment, intimidation and corruption than about journalism. And Leveson’s recommendations – thoughtful and workable – remain a vital blueprint for a self-regulatory system which will provide access to justice for victims of press abuse AND decent protection for investigative journalism.

Sometimes journalists need to use subterfuge in order to expose wrongdoing in the public interest. The fear is that the Leveson inquiry will discourage editors from ordering investigations that could be construed as improper - for example to track corruption. To what extent did the inquiry have a “chilling effect“ on investigative journalism?

None at all. The mainstream British press, desperate to undermine Leveson, has invented a "chilling effect" without providing the slightest evidence of any stories which have been suppressed or softened up. It is simply untrue.

What is the Hacked Off view of IPSO?

IPSO is a sham which is as much under the thumb of powerful press proprietors as the old PCC was. They control IPSO, its rules, funding and structure. It's a fig-leaf of respectability.

How could ECPMF help to promote media freedom and the highest standards of ethical journalism in the UK?

Great question. I have some ideas. But I'm intrigued about the line in ECPMF blurb that "the Press and media freedom is under attack…. also in countries with strong democratic constitutions like Germany and long democratic traditions like United Kingdom." Where is the UK threat? I do hope the ECPMF isn’t falling for the newspaper propaganda line that the Leveson system is a threat to press freedom – it's precisely the opposite, it will liberate great journalism. The Hacked Off campaign welcomes IMPRESS. These are baby steps, but it is a very important new development. And the National Union of Journalists has its own ethical guidelines. They include a conscience clause that allows a journalist to opt out of any story or coverage that he or she thinks is wrong.

For a couple of short articles by me explaining these issues, you might like to have a look here and here

Steve Barnett is a Professor at the University of Westminster, serves on the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and an editorial board member of the British Journalism Review