By Donald Trelford

The phrase, “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” has been used several times lately about the proposed reform of press regulation. There seems to be a general belief, certainly among MPs, that the phone-hacking scandal resulted from the failure of current press regulation and that newspapers must therefore have new rules imposed on them, just as MPs had to suffer after the expenses scandal was revealed. There was a strong whiff of revenge in last week’s Commons debate.

But is it true that the phone-hacking could have been prevented, or halted, by a more robust regulator than the Press Complaints Commission? This wasn’t simply a breach of the editors’ code of ethics, it was a breach of the law – and conducted in such secrecy that even the editors and managers of the News of the World say they knew nothing about it. (Whether that is true, of course, remains to be seen). The PCC says it was lied to by News International when it investigated the allegations and had neither the power nor the resources to dig any deeper.

Not good enough, says Cameron: the PCC must go. To say you were lied to is no defence. Yet Cameron himself, whenever he is challenged about his appointment of Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications, uses that same defence. He argues that he accepted Coulson’s assurances that he was innocent and therefore can’t be blamed if those assurances prove to be unsound.

Now an official inquiry, led by a senior judge, Lord Leveson, has been set up in haste to determine what form of “independent regulation” (surely a contradiction in terms) should replace the PCC. There was much pious talk among MPs about the need to preserve a free press to probe corruption in society. But this will just be hot air if some of the mooted reforms, such as putting the press under the same statutory controls as television, are adopted by the inquiry.

I was critical of the PCC when it was set up two decades ago. I didn’t think working national newspaper editors should be on it. They would, in effect, be sitting in judgement on themselves or their commercial rivals and this would carry little weight with the public. The editors were also such a powerful presence on the panel that the voice of independent members would be muted or shouted down. Who would have the nerve to argue with a forceful figure like Paul Dacre on a newspaper issue?

Nonetheless, I think the PCC did a good job in adjudicating on complaints from the public and in acting as a mediator in disputes. But it was never a regulator in any meaningful sense – it had no teeth, such as the power to suspend or fine miscreant publications.

The journalists on the new inquiry are respectable choices – George Jones, former political editor of the Daily Telegraph, Elinor Goodman, former political correspondent of Channel 4, and Sir David Bell, former chairman of the Financial Times. But none of them have any experience of editing or of working on tabloid newspapers, or of the digital world, which strike me as serious weaknesses. It also seems strange, at a time when newspaper sales are declining and news websites are expanding rapidly, that the new rules will only apply to old-fashioned print newspapers and not to news providers like Google, AOL and Yahoo.

And who will pay for the new regulator? Newspapers will be unwilling to pay for a system they don’t like, and government money would look like state control. If the PCC is abolished, who will handle future complaints? These are just a few of the unanswered questions that Lord Leveson must address.

Posted: 29 July 2011