The Press are the last self-regulated profession, but for how long?

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.

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7 Responses to The Press are the last self-regulated profession, but for how long?

  1. Unfortunately the author doesn’t appear to understand how self-regulation works. The system is self-regulatory because members voluntarily sign up for it and commit to pay for it. They agree a Code of Practice (via the Editors’ Code Committee) and make payment to the funding body (PRESBOF).

    The policeman (the PCC) however operates separately and independently to then enforce the Code. Polling shows that the public overwhelmingly see the PCC as effective.

    The buy-in that this system brings mean it is flexible enough to adapt to social changes and technological change. In fact it is probably the best example you could get of the Big Society – given the demonstration of social responsibility and the fact the system does not cost the taxpayer a single penny.

    That’s why it is so surprising to see an article such as this on this blog. Especially so given that Ed Vaizey and Andrew Lansley have recently held the PCC system up as a model for other areas.PCC

  2. Should the press still be a self-regulating profession? I don’t know but I wrote a quick blog about it anyway

  3. Betapolitics says:

    Thank you for the clarification Jonathan. I admit to being no expert in Press regulation but I do stand by what I said about the concept of self-regulation being challenged in most other sectors. The thoughts in this post were triggered by reading Nick Robinson’s excellent blog on the ethics of what the Telegraph has done. Will anybody investigate whether the Telegraph broke the code? If they are found to have acted within the code will “We abided by the rules” be an adequate defence?

    For all the reasons you mention above I generally support self-regulation but what is of most importance are outcomes. Maybe I was wrong to focus on the PCC – if as I understand it’s role is strictly limited to enforcement – but the wider issue of professionalism and ethics within political reporting needs to be looked at.

  4. @RupertWhite I would be interested in your views on this And Happy Christmas!

  5. @RupertWhite I would be interested in your views on this And Happy Christmas!

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nick D, Nick D. Nick D said: Should the press still be a self-regulating profession? I don’t know but I wrote a quick blog about it anyway [...]

  7. Rupert White says:

    I didn’t think Nick was giving the PCC as much of a kicking as either Mr Collett implies, or as much of a kicking as even some staunch defenders of press freedom would usually give it. A lot of journalists think it’s a paper tiger, and I’d be inclined to agree.

    As a hack myself I think it matters far less whether the PCC ‘does’ things, attempts to enforce the code etc – it’s whether the tabloid press (generally the ones most often transgressing) are afraid of it. Only if they’re afraid of it and/or its sanctions will it have a measure of real power to change the press for the better because it’s stopping papers making things up, lying and bullying that needs to change, and that’s got to happen from within.

    That ‘from within’ necessity is something Mr Collett is rightly pointing to as a fine goal, but he’s wrong to suggest it’s happening now because of self-regulation (as it stands). It’s not – the papers aren’t afraid of the PCC, or rather they’re not as afraid of the PCC as they should be, on a daily, editorial decision-making basis.

    This isn’t to say that I’d wish the PCC to have, effectively, a chilling effect on newsgathering. The press is already too afraid of the libel laws in the UK as it is, so it doesn’t need more disempowerment.

    What we need is a stronger PCC that stops the worst excesses of tabloid lying and scheming, which is pretty much all the red tops appear to do (mind you Nick Robinson might now include the Torygraph in this bunch), and less anti-press libel legislation.

    Taken together, that’s medicine the press could take and benefit from.

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