Marr says Leveson must examine blogs

Broadcaster Andrew Marr today told the Leveson Inquiry it needs to address the “gap” between “state control of press on the one hand and a free-for-all on the other”.

“It’s a difficult gap,” Marr said, adding it was a “new place to build something.”

Marr, who for years maintained a superinjunction barring the press from reporting allegations he had fathered a child during an extra-marital affair also brought the judge back to the unclear terrain of regulating the online world, noting that many of the most influential political commentators today were bloggers.

“The old distinction between a political player and a would-be professional journalist is breaking down,” Marr said.

“At one point does become big enough to become part of a regulatory system?” he asked.

Marr also cautioned against recording all contact between members of the press and politicians, noting there was an “absolute distinction” between proprietors and editors meeting politicians and the “day-to-day job of story-getting political journalists” having contact with them.

Earlier in the day, a former secretary for national heritage has challenged Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion of press regulation with a statutory backstop this morning, arguing that existing legislation needed to be better enforced.

“If we already have a set of legal standards that aren’t being met, we should ask ourselves why that is,” Conservative MP Stephen Dorrell, who oversaw the Major government’s response to the second Calcutt report in 1993, told the Inquiry this morning.

“The reason we’re sat here is that the existing laws that nobody disputes haven’t been observed and enforced,” Dorrell said.

Dorrell, who was secretary of state for national heritage during the Major government from 1994-5 —  a position that subsequently became the culture secretary post — also stressed there was an issue of management culture that had largely been lost in the ongoing debate into press standards.

“The breaking of the law is the symptom of what’s wrong in the culture of an organisation that tolerates criminality,” he added. “No regulation will deliver an outcome if the core problem remains [of tolerating criminality].”

He stressed a need to “address the cause of the problem rather than the symptoms”.

Dorrell also emphasised his view that the responsibilities of a reformed Press Complaints Commission should not be decided by an external force.  “The PCC is an organisation with the responsibility to promote and define standards within the press,” he said, adding later: “The issues around standards need to be internalised within the press, not taken away from them.”

Yet he said he was not appearing at the Inquiry to “defend the record” of the PCC, stressing the need for the press to hold itself to account. “The PCC cannot be a champion of every individual organ of the press,” he said. “It can be a champion of press freedom but it has to be willing to be critical of its own when the standards it espouses aren’t met.”

He added later: “The question is what happens in circumstances like [Chris] Jefferies where a judgment is made and a major injustice is done. In those circumstances, you either give people a right to remedy or recovery in civil law or you throw it back to the editor and proprietor and require them to think about what the consequences are that should flow in those circumstances.”

“It’s a completely fair question to put to the press industry: What should have happened?”

Leveson took the opportunity to flirt further with his notion of press regulation with statutory backing of some kind. “There is  something systemic here. I struggle to see how it could be done by getting editors and proprietors together,” he said.

“The trick is to get a mechanism that works for everyone, that represents a free press and free expression but  does cope not merely with the very rich who can indulge in proceedings but everyone.”

“I struggle to see how that’s possible on a model that doesn’t have something, somewhere.”

He was quick to add, however, that he was “simply talking about structures”.

“I am not suggesting the state should have any view at all about content,” Leveson said.

The Inquiry continues this afternoon.

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

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

PCC witnesses face criticism at Leveson Inquiry

The Press Complaints Commission was today criticised at the Leveson Inquiry for having taken a “somewhat restrictive and timorous” approach to investigate phone hacking.

Robert Jay QC told former PCC director Tim Toulmin that the self-regulation body had failed to “test the boundaries of its powers” by choosing not to question former News of the World editor Andy Coulson after he resigned from the tabloid following the 2007 convictions of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire over phone hacking. Toulmin rejected this suggestion.

Toulmin, who headed the PCC from 2004 to 2009, said the prospect had been discussed but it was decided that the body’s powers “wouldn’t have had traction” with Coulson.

He added that he later thought this was a mistake. “The PCC should have been seen to ask him,” he said. Lord Justice Leveson interjected, saying that doing so would have been “incredibly powerful”.

Quizzed about the PCC’s response to the Goodman and Mulcaire jailings, Toulmin said that although the PCC did not investigate the matter, it conducted an “exercise that was designed to produce a forward-looking report” and establish principles of internal governance to avoid future wrongdoing.

“We were looking at how it arose, and the culture,” he said.

The PCC produced two reports, one in May 2007 that found no further evidence of wrongdoing, and one in September 2009 that has since been withdrawn, which concluded the body was not misled by the News of the World.

Regarding the 2009 report, Toulmin conceded that dismissing evidence from the Guardian was a “major mistake”. He said he was not a member of the board that decided on the report’s conclusions.

Testifying at the Inquiry earlier this month, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had said the 2009 report was “worse than a whitewash”.

Elsewhere in his testimony, which ran for over three hours, Toulmin discussed the PCC’s response to the Information Commissioner’s findings on Operation Motorman, which examined the use of a private investigators by the media to obtain personal information. He said that the then commissioner, Richard Thomas, went to the wrong body when he approached the PCC with his report. “He either should have gone directly to the industry — trade bodies — or the code committee, which is more representative of the industry,” he said, noting that data protection breaches were outside of the PCC’s remit.

Last month, Thomas told the Inquiry the PCC “should have done more” in response to the Motorman findings, and that he sought their “loud, strident condemnation.”

Toulmin also asserted that the PCC was not subject to influence from current editors serving on its board, namely Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and former News International CEO Les Hinton. “They never a single time would phone me up and suggest we should behave in a certain way,” Toulmin said.

Toulmin argued that PCC members were not “cowed” by editors’ presence, and that their presence gave”bite” to complaints rulings.

In his witness statement, Toulmin argued that it was “inappropriate” to call the PCC a regulator.

Leveson also put it to Toulmin that the PCC was believed by the public to be a regulator ” when it wasn’t actually a regulator at all,” Leveson said. Toulmin agreed, claiming that it was “a complaints handler (…) a sort of ombudsman.”

The PCC’s current director, Stephen Abell, who gave evidence this afternoon, said he too was “happy” that the term regulator not be used to describe the PCC. He said that at the heart of the newspaper industry is “people exercising their right to be polemic”, and that regard needed to given to the nature of the industry when coming up with an over-arching structure.

During his testimony he ran through cases of complaints made to the PCC, citing Jan Moir’s column in the Daily Mail about the death of singer Stephen Gately, which was originally headlined “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”. Abell said there were over 22,000 complaints about the piece — which was later amended to the print edition headline “A strange, lonely and troubling death” — but it was “just short” of a breach of the PCC code, despite being a “difficult” episode to judge.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with evidence from current PCC chairman Lord Hunt, former chair Sir Christopher Meyer and PCC member Lord Grade.

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