Jonathan Isaby believes that the Daily Telegraph acted against the Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Practice (PCC) when entrapping Vince Cable. But is the PCC a credible enough body to investigate such a matter? How often have they taken on the cause of the public good – including promoting and protecting the long-term reputation of journalism – when it’s diametrically opposed to the interests of one of their members? “The PCC is an independent body which administers the system of self-regulation for the press.” Does the public believe that self-regulation can be independent?
At the beginning of the last century professional self-regulation was considered the best way to ensure standards. By the beginning of this century that belief had almost disappeared. Most systems of professional self-regulation have undergone reform and upheaval. Michael Moran has called this ‘the crisis of club government’. He argues that governments have responded to changing social attitudes and perceived institutional failings by extending the reach of government control through regulation. Professions have had to demonstrate how they can continue to benefit the wider community in the face of allegations of self-interest – “chaps regulating chaps” – and a lack of focus on the public good.
Nick Robinson has written a great blog on the ethics of what the Telegraph did. He points out that their actions both feel wrong and could harm future reporting:
“Starting from today, politicians will be more wary about what they say to their own constituents, more suspicious of journalists and more keen to meet behind closed doors without the risk of microphones, cameras, prying eyes and straining ears. Candour will be less common, not more.”
While Nick Robinson laments what has happened he does not touch on how to stop such an event happening again. This subject deserves wider consideration. Regulation in the UK generally has been transformed in recent years, with the emergence of “front-line regulators”, accountable to a new tier of sectoral “meso-regulators”, with over-arching responsibilities across sizeable and diverse professions such as law, accounting, and health care. Such bodies were designed expressly to address concerns about traditional regulators, namely that self-regulatory bodies have been more responsive to practitioners concerns than those of the general good. If such a move was necessary for lawyers, doctors, accountants and finally MPs, why should the press be thought to be special?
I do not know the answers to these questions and recognise that external regulation can be flawed. My instincts are in favour of less regulation, I believe self-regulation can work well, and know that having a free press – and a respected press – is a crucial part of living in a free society. But with freedom comes responsibility and in this case the responsibility of the PCC is to ensure journalism remains a respected profession; one that does more good than harm.