Article by Donald Trelford in British Journalism Review (December 2011)

ALL four official inquiries into the standards of the British press since the Second World War – Ross (1947-49), Shawcross (1962), McGregor (1974-77) and Calcutt (1990 and 1992) – have raised fears about statutory controls but have resulted in fine-tuning of the methods of self-regulation. I see no reason why the fifth inquiry, led by Lord Leveson, should be any different.

The whole process might have been speeded up if the newspapers had accepted the proposals of the first inquiry, set up by the post-war Labour government under Sir David Ross, head of an Oxford college. He called for a General Council of the Press with a lay chairman and five lay members and a code of conduct for journalists. The stiff-necked newspaper owners rejected all the proposals but, after four years (allowing time for a Conservative government to come to power), reluctantly accepted a Press Council chaired by Major J. J. Astor, owner of The Times, containing no outsiders. It took another decade (after Hartley Shawcross’s report) for a lay chairman and members to be appointed and more than three decades before editors agreed to abide by an ethical code.

The Press Council was seriously undermined by Professor Oliver McGregor’s Royal Commission on the Press report at the end of the 1970s and by what a later Press Council chairman, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, described as “the drip-drip of discredit” throughout the 1980s. It was no real surprise when Sir David Calcutt applied the coup de grace and proposed that it be replaced by a Press Complaints Commission, allowing the industry a year in which to get its act together. The alternative was Calcutt Stage 2, a statutory Press Tribunal. Faced with this threat, the Newspaper Publishers’ Association set up the PCC in haste, with a code of conduct agreed by the editors.

I was the odd man out among editors in opposing the rush to create the PCC. As I told the Media Society at the time: “The PCC was set up by an industry in panic…What the government and Calcutt effectively said was: ‘Here is a cliff we think you’ll fall over, but if you manage to walk along this narrow path, you may just avoid it.’ Lord McGregor (as he then was) and the NPA are taking a great risk in rising to this challenge, because it appears to leave them no escape if they fail.” It seemed to me unsafe to gamble everything on the good conduct of the tabloid press. It needed only one more scandal for the whole statutory framework to land on our heads.

I agreed with Hugo Young, who wrote that it was “time to end the professional blackmail by which it is pretended that the interests of the Sun have anything to do with the interests of the Guardian.” In other words, why should the quality press face restraints on serious investigative journalism just because the red-tops misbehave? That question is still being asked today. No-one has yet suggested a way of preventing the one without impinging on the other.

No scandal emerged in Calcutt’s time-frame, so the PCC survived. Until now, that is. It is in a similar position to the one faced by the Press Council in 1990, being portrayed as a weak regulator and described in Parliament by Prime Minister David Cameron as “a failed body.” Leveson is likely to replace it with something stronger, perhaps on the lines indicated by Paul Dacre – some sort of Press Standards Commission (better than his suggested Ombudsman), retaining the complaints function (which actually works well), but with the resources to conduct investigations into press conduct and the power to force all newspapers to join and, controversially, to impose punitive sanctions such as fines.

I would add an annual audit of the press, using academic research to check back on how accurately a sample of major stories have been reported. I remember, when I first became an editor, a riot in London in which a protester died. The papers all agreed that the policing of the riot was to blame. At the subsequent public inquiry a totally different picture emerged, showing that the papers had all got it wrong. This incident prompted my interest in retrospective academic study of press coverage – not as a blame game, but to help editors understand the limitations of instant reporting and to discourage the tendency for newspapers to claim omniscience. Hillsborough provides another and better example of this.

Ross, whose ten recommendations for the press Leveson might do well to revisit (if he hasn’t already), also reviewed the education and training of journalists. I would like to see this form part of the remit of a new Press Standards Commission. I would like to see courses on newspaper ethics and the practical application of the code of conduct. An industry in decline will say that it cannot afford to pay for all this, but it might reasonably claim government, European, international or charity funds for its educational role.

Any inquiry into the standards of the press is entitled to ask: have they improved since the last time and, if not, has the PCC been an adequate regulator? The phone-hacking scandal suggests a No to the first question and the PCC’s meek acceptance of News International’s denials suggests a double negative. But this is misleading. The extent of phone-hacking was not a failure of regulation, but the result of a series of criminal acts that the Murdoch management prevaricated about and which the police failed to pursue thoroughly. The PCC was not set up to conduct investigations of that sort.

The Murdoch empire is central to any inquiry into press standards, not just because of the phone-hacking disclosures and the group’s handling of them, but because Rupert Murdoch himself has been the dominant force in British journalism for more than four decades. Setting aside his undoubted achievements – the creation of the Sun, the destruction of the corrupt printing unions and his philanthropic support of the loss-making Times and Sunday Times – he has been plausibly blamed for the fiercely increased competitiveness in the popular market that led to ethical corner-cutting.

Now, it seems safe to say, his era is ending. That famous appearance before MPs on the Select Committee on Culture and the Media was totemic – the old man past it, the young man not up to it, the loyal wife bashing an assailant who seemed to symbolise all Murdoch’s critics rolled into one. Now his American shareholders may pull the rug from under the Murdoch dynasty. No political leader will want to be associated with him and the blessing or curse of his newspapers’ support will no longer be such a big deal. This, the press might argue, heralds a new start, shorn of the malign influence of the Dirty Digger. They might well plead: give us another chance, milord.

Newspapers are no longer the prime means by which the public gets its information or its opinions and their sales are falling all the time. Their on-line content would presumably be subject to the same restraints as the newsprint version, so why not apply controls to other editorial content on the Internet – and how, in practice, could that be done? The whole idea of controlling newsprint alone looks curiously outdated. In any event, Cameron, a party leader without a Parliamentary majority, is in no position to hammer the press and can have no interest in doing so before a General Election, whatever Leveson may recommend and whatever vengeful MPs might want. So, with some more fine-tuning, self-regulation seems likely to get another reprieve. Until the next time, that is.