New press regulator should look beyond current fears

After 21 years, the Press Complaints Commission today confirmed it will close and be replaced by transitional body until a replacement is set up after the Leveson Inquiry.

The Guardian reported this morning that “closing the existing self-regulatory body will offer the press a clean break from the past and an opportunity to regain the confidence of the public.”

In his testimony to the Leveson Inquiry last month, the PCC’s current chair Lord Hunt said there was an urgent need for a new body and that there was “wide consensus for radical reform”. He suggested a new regulator having two arms — one for handling complaints and mediation, and another for auditing and enforcing standards.

If there is one thing the first module of the Inquiry told us, it was that the PCC had failed. Today’s news is the long-awaited admission of that.

Guardian journalist Nick Davies opined that the journalism industry was not “interested in or capable of” self-regulation, citing the PCC’s failure to properly investigate the extent of phone hacking in 2009 and arguing that the body did not take into account getting remedy for victims of the press. Sheryl Gascoigne called the body a “waste of time”, JK Rowling deemed it a “wrist-slapping exercise at best”, and Daily Express editor Hugh Whittow went so far as to suggest that one of the reasons for the tabloid withdrawing from the the body was because it failed to stop the paper publishing defamatory articles about the parents of missing toddler Madeleine McCann.

But defence of the organisation was equally staunch, with former chairs  arguing it had been criticised for failing to exercise powers it never had. Baroness Peta Buscombe claimed that the body did not have investigatory powers to summon editors to give evidence under oath and that the rest of the world “would kill” for the British press’s system of self-regulation.

Buscombe’s predecessor, Sir Christopher Meyer, also grew exasperated with Inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC’s criticism. “Don’t drag me down that path,” he told Jay, rejecting the counsel’s suggestion that, had the PCC taken a more proactive stance with the McCanns, the libellous coverage of Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies would not have been able to go so far.

We are now, it would seem, in self-regulation limbo. A longer-term replacement for the PCC is not expected to be up and running until after Leveson reports on his findings this autumn. While Leveson has hinted at a new regulator having statutory backing of some kind, he has reminded his followers not to take his thinking as proof of proposals.

In the meantime, a rebranding of the PCC needs to be avoided so as not to repeat past mistakes of failing to investigate effectively. As Index argued in its submission to the Leveson Inquiry in January, we need a more robust and trustworthy press, monitored by an enhanced regulator pushing improved standards and corporate governance. If we want further wrongdoing to be prevented, its investigatory powers must be strengthened. More must be done to make the media more accountable and transparent in the way ethics are applied and ensuring high professional standards are maintained.

But improved regulation should not occur at the expense of press freedom  — the country’s “greatest asset”, in the words of Lord Hunt. The current atmosphere, in which the police seem to be acting in a overzealous manner, perhaps as a response to previous accusations of not having done so, is worrying. Concerns have also been raised that the internal investigation at the Sun has compromised reporters’ sources. While the press should indeed co-operate with the police where there may be evidence of illegality, journalists’ sources must be protected. Whatever powers the transitional body, and its eventual replacement, have, today’s tense atmosphere should not become the norm.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Paul Dacre refuses to withdraw "mendacious smears" statement

As the first module of the Leveson Inquiry drew to a close yesterday, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre refused to retract a statement accusing actor Hugh Grant of “mendacious smears” against his company unless Grant agreed to take back the “toxic and explosive” statements made about the Mail.

In a heated debate Dacre and David Sherborne, counsel for the core participant victims, discussed answerphone messages left for Grant from a “plummy-voiced woman,” described in a 2007 Mail on Sunday article. In his evidence to the Inquiry in November, Grant suggested that the information for the story, which suggested his relationship with Jemima Khan was on the rocks, could only have been accessed by phone hacking.

Dacre, who was recalled to give evidence on the issue for a second time this week, said: “Our group did not hack phones and I rather resent your continued insinuations that we did,” adding that he had given the Inquiry his “unequivocal word” on the matter earlier in the week.

Dacre accused Sherborne of “attacking my group rather unpleasantly”. Referring to Grant as the “poster boy for Hacked Off,” Dacre went on to add that the actor “is obsessed by trying to drag the Daily Mail into another newspaper’s scandal.”

Lord Justice Leveson Leveson suggested that the editor may need to appear before the Inquiry again at a later date. Dacre replied: ” I have shown this week I am prepared to devote a lot of time to this.”

Heather Mills, who also appeared before the Inquiry yesterday, said she had “never” played voicemail recordings to former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan. In his evidence to the Inquiry last December, Morgan claimed he had heard voicemail tapes, in which Mills’ then partner Sir Paul McCartney sang an apology and asked for forgiveness, that had been obtained legitimately, but he refused to “compromise” his source.

Mills added: “I couldn’t quite believe that he would even try to insinuate [that], a man that has written nothing but awful things about me for years, would relish in telling the court if I had played a voicemail message to him.”

The court also heard how Mills had recorded over 64 hours of footage of alleged harassment from journalists, including evidence, shown to the court of a car chase involving paparazzi which resulted in a crash.

Thursday’s session also focused on bullying within the journalism industry, hearing a number of anonymous testimonies from reporters. Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) presented 12 written accounts to the court, detailing “tremendous pressure,” “macho culture” and other “degrading” treatment.

One testimony described a journalist being forced to write “anti-Islam stories”, and being called the “token lefty” when they complained. The journalist described being “in tears” at the treatment, but explained that it continued.

Another said: “three or four staff suffered physical collapses, almost certainly to some extent as a result of the stress.”

Former News of the World news editor Ian Edmondson also described a “culture of bullying” at the newspaper, explaining that “you will do what you are told”. Edmondson said that everything was dictated by the editor and explained editor Colin Myler, who replaced Andy Coulson following his resignation in 2007, continued the newsroom bullying.

Edmondson also denied drafting emails sent by Neville Thurlbeck, former chief reporter of the News of the World, to women involved in an orgy with ex-motorsports boss Max Mosley in 2008, though he added it was “more likely that I would have asked” Thurlbeck to contact them.

Edmondson told the Inquiry he believed the emails to be a “threat”, chiming with the inference of Mr Justice Eady that the messages amounted to blackmail, as suggested in the judgment following Mosley’s successful privacy action against the News of the World in the same year.

He was also quizzed about extracts of Kate McCann’s diary that appeared in the paper in 2008, contradicting claims made by Myler that Edmondson had sought permission to publish from the McCanns’ spokesman, Clarence Mitchell. Asked if he had led editor Myler to believe he had “made it clear” to Mitchell that the paper had the whole diary and planned to publish parts, Edmondson replied: “No.”

Appearing via video link, Darryn Lyons of photo agency Big Pictures, explained that his photographers tried to stay in line with the PCC code, but added that photographers, picture agencies, and publishers no longer know where they stood in the industry.

“Celebrities court publicity when they want to, and all of a sudden they want to switch it off.  I don’t  agree people should be hounded up and down the street. I do agree people should be photographed in public places, we have a free press and a free press should be able to work in public places,” he said.

When asked about the legal case against his group brought by actress Sienna Miller regarding photographs taken of her on holiday, Lyons said that paparazzi had been taking pictures of people on holiday since “Brigitte Bardot was seen sunning herself on the beaches of St Tropez”.

PR veteran Max Clifford told the Inquiry that he had agreed his own hacking settlement with former NotW editor Rebekah Brooks over a “quiet lunch in Mayfair.” Clifford agreed to £220,000 a year for three years plus legal costs, and to provide the newspaper with tip-offs.

Clifford said he believed the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World and the Leveson Inquiry had “frightened people”. He added that he was aware of “several stories that would have dominated the headlines,” over recent months that had not been published.

The Inquiry will resume with module two, examining the relationship between the press and the police, on 28 February.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Buscombe "regrets" PCC phone hacking report

The former chair of the Press Complaints Commission has said she regrets the 2009 PCC report into phone hacking that concluded there was no evidence to suggest the practice was widespread or that the PCC had been misled in its 2007 inquiry of the activity.

Baroness Peta Buscombe told the Leveson Inquiry she was “never comfortable” putting her name to the report, which claimed that the Guardian’s coverage of phone hacking “did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given”.

The report has since been formally withdrawn by the PCC.

Buscombe, who resigned as chairman of the PCC last October amid growing criticism, said she equally regretted being “clearly misled” by News International and what editors had told her, adding later that she had been “lied to” over the phone hacking.

But she was quick to say that the self-regulation body needed to be seen as acting. “What could we do? (…) If we’d have done nothing we’d have been called useless,” she said. “It was rather one of those ‘you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t’,” she added later. “It was very very difficult.”

She said people were “misconstructing” the role of the PCC, noting that the body did not have investigatory powers to summon editors to give evidence under oath. She argued that broadcast regulator Ofcom cannot “deal with crime, nor should it”.

She added that the rest of the world “would kill” for the British press’s system of self-regulation, though conceded that the rebuilding of trust was a “problem” and a “tough call” for Lord Justice Leveson.

Buscombe also argued that the major issue was newsroom culture, putting it to the Inquiry: “Can you have a system that changes the culture within news organisations?”

Meanwhile Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has been recalled to face further questioning, after he accused actor Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off campaign of trying to “hijack” the Inquiry.

Dacre made the remarks in his evidence yesterday in response to Grant’s testimony last November, during which he described a 2007 story in the Mail on Sunday that claimed his relationship with Jemima Khan was on the rocks due to his late night calls with a “plummy-voiced” studio executive.

Grant said the only way the paper could have sourced the story was through accessing his voicemail, and that he “would love to hear what their source was if it wasn’t phone hacking”.

Associated Newspaper responded in a statement that the actor had made “mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media”, which Dacre said he would withdraw if “Mr Grant withdraws his that the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday were involved in phone hacking.”

Leveson said that he would need to speak to Dacre for around 30 minutes this week about the issue.

Dacre stressed yesterday that he knew of no cases of phone hacking at Associated’s titles.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson