In a rather good article on press and privacy in this week’s Economist, I was reminded of (Daily Mail editor) Paul Dacre’s much commented upon 2008 speech on press freedom, when he declared:
“If mass-circulation newspapers, which, of course, also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal as well as dry public policy, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations, with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.”
The notion that purveying tell-tale stories about the sex lives of celebrities is a plank of the democratic process is an example of the dangerous levels of self-delusion in tabloid journalism. It is the same mock, moral posturing that is used to justify its tawdry, venal, self-serving, dirt-digging on individuals whose behaviour has no bearing whatever on the public interest. Dacre believes it is the duty of the media to take an ethical stand. Excuse me? Did God decree that our moral judges are tabloid editors, hacks and hackers. Personally, I would rather stand before a panel of real hyenas.
And it is these newspapers who, with others, sit in judgement of themselves on the UKPCC. Whatever its ethos, intent and integrity of its officers, whatever its clout and its achievements, the UKPCC surely cannot continue in its present form. Self-regulation has completely lost its credibility as the UKPCC has presided over a steep decline in standards in parts of the industry. Significantly, it has completely failed to deal with the phone-hacking. Meanwhile, Richard Desmond has simply unjoined the club and taken his papers out of its reach altogether.
Statutory regulation has worrying implications for freedom of the press but we seem able to survive with Ofcom, the statutory regulator on broadcasting. With the proper safeguards and constitution, full accountablility, impartiality and transparency, a statutory press regulator could be a body that would genuinely place public interest first, while still supporting a free press. It could appoint a learned committee to adjudicate on privacy issues, and it could be more robust about when, how and where papers print apologies. There would also be no question of opting out, like Mr Desmond.
In the past few weeks, the UKPCC has been actively promoting its work, powers and accomplishments. There is no reason why some of its officers and set-up should not form part of a new statutory body. Hopefully, the topic will be high on the agenda of the new cross-party committee of MPs and peers charged with examining privacy laws.
Finally, we say to Mr Dacre: if you are genuinely concerned about a diverse and democratic press, join our campaign to break up the media empires, including that of your own employers, DMGT.