Two tier regulation

March 12, 2009

It’s been another turbulent week in the unhappy world of journalism with more job cuts, pay freezes, forced unpaid holidays, strikes and Roy Greenslade suggesting most “freesheets” “have little worthwhile editorial content”.

But for me the most important story has been the ongoing media select committee hearings in the House of Commons.

Evidence has been given by Gerry McCann, Robert Murat and Max Moseley about how the press – largely the national, tabloid press – have stepped way over the line.

Now, I have no sympathy for Moseley, but the treatment of the McCanns and Murat  was pretty horrendous.

There is an argument that as the McCanns courted the media, they deserved what they get. I really can’t subscribe to this point of view. Nobody deserves to have lies printed about them so regularly, especially not people who have been through such a harrowing time as they have.

Now it’s naive to suggest that journalists should be impartial and balanced at all times, but we really should insist that accuracy is non-negotiable.
Of course we’ll get things wrong and while not inexcusable, we will also be misled at times. But when stories get exaggerated, twisted and even completely fabricated just to sell papers, then the whole industry is brought into disrepute.

The purpose of the select committee is to look at regulation of the press. I used to favour self-regulation, but I just don’t think it’s working properly.

The worst offenders – the national tabloids – can easily afford the fines handed out to them. In fact calculations are often made on whether they’ll be able to make up for a libel fine with the extra sales they’ll put on.

There’s something extremely rotten about that, as is the fact that most nats set aside a budget for libel payouts. In effect they know in advance how much per year they’re willing to pay out for not telling the truth. Deliberatly printing something you know to be untrue should be the biggest sin in journalism. Sadly it seems to be actively encouraged at some papers.

Take Jade Goody at the moment – it doesn’t matter what it’s about, every tabloid paper wants a certain number of Jade stories a week. That sort of approach can only breed dodgy articles.

Self-regulation works a bit better for the regional press, if only because they simply can’t afford to take risks in these days with the rise of no-win, no-fee and the ridiculous rules on paying court costs.
It still makes little sense to me that the penalities for the Sun or Mirror could ever be on a par with those faced by the Battle Observer (circ 3,000). It’s like Chelsea being handed a £100,000 fine. We scoff at it as it has no impact. But if the likes of Luton Town are ordered to pay the same fee, it could bankrupt them.

I am worried about just how much press freedom would be curtailed by outside regulation, particularly if from the Government, but carrying on as we are simply isn’t an option.

So why not make it a two tier system?

Keep self-regulation in some form for the regionals – most are already behaving responsibly – but introduce a tougher watchdog for the national papers.
They have more resources, more money and a bigger audience. They should be setting the example, not lowering the trust in journalism.

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