Press regulation: who watches the watchmen?

It is a little known fact that 37.6% of people who write about press regulation self-combust. The poor souls simply burst into flames the moment their fingertips start flitting around the keyboard. Indeed, the fear of upsetting a powerful and highly influential industry can trigger a reaction so severe in some people that spontaneous combustion is the natural (and grisly) response.

Well, this is certainly how it feels for many of the individuals and organisations who are involved in shaping the future of regulation in this area. The phone-hacking scandal, which is still playing out in the criminal courts, has led to a febrile atmosphere.

Add into the mix Lord Leveson's inquiry into the 'culture, practice and ethics' of the press and you have an even more potent brew. The UK has always had a complicated relationship with its press. This inquiry simply confirmed this fact.

As Lord Leveson said,

The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?

Indeed, who guards the guardians?

Every day there seems to be a different answer. Even so, let's have a look as to where we are now. What does the crystal ball say?

It is now expected that the Press Complaints Commission ('PCC') will close down in June (2014) to be replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Originally, this was pencilled in for 1 May 2014 but, according to the Guardian, a large number of high quality applicants to chair the body came forward so the dates had to be changed.

But what of this new body generally: what have the reactions to it been?

To be fair, many people are a tad miffed about the whole thing.

For example, at the launch event of the Reclaim the Media event in Parliament on Monday night, it was clear that there wasn't a great deal of love for the new organisation. Professor Natalie Fenton, board director of the campaign group Hacked Off, was ... well ... pretty hacked off really (10 out of 10 for consistency! This campaign really does do 'what it says on the tin').

Her view is that IPSO is 'fatally flawed'—nay 'shockingly flawed'—and that the proposed new system is nothing more than a 'squalid attempt to rebrand the PCC'. When IPSO starts, it is going to employ the same secretariat as the PCC; operate from the same office; have the same company number (02538908, since you ask); and have the same directors.

Certainly not ideal from a PR point of view?

That said, does this necessarily mean that IPSO is flawed, particularly given the changes in how it will be run in comparison with the PCC? New articles of association have been adopted and the appointment of a widely respected new chair, Sir Alan Moses, was announced yesterday. Everybody is now asking, 'what impact will this have'?

Furthermore, unlike the PCC for most of its life, IPSO is a 'community interest company' which means that its activities must be carried on for the 'benefit of the community'. In other words, not just to the members of a particular body. Frustratingly, however, the concept of community benefit in the relevant Act is not abundantly clear and there have been no cases on it yet. Even so, it seems to me that IPSO will need to tread carefully to make sure that it complies with these obligations.

What about Sir Alan Moses? According to the Guardian, this is what he said today on his appointment:

To those who have voiced doubts as to the ability of Ipso to meet the demands of independent regulation, I say that I have spent over 40 years pursuing the profession of barrister and judge whose hallmarks are independent action and independent judgment. I do not intend to do away with that independence now.

 Sir Hayden Phillips, chairman of the appointments panel who selected Moses, added:

Sir Alan's qualities meet all of the criteria my panel judged were most relevant in appointing a chair. He is person of experience and integrity, of independence and vigour, and also personable, approachable, and always open to consider new ideas.

With his reputation for being quick, forthright and fearless I believe that not only is he someone on whom the public can depend to tackle abuses by newspapers where they occur, (using the considerable new powers that will be vested in Ipso), but someone who also believes firmly in independent self- regulation of the press and in the vital democratic role of a free press in a free society.

The stakes are very high. Is this new system enough? Have too many compromises been made? Will IPSO be independent? Will it be fair?

Perhaps most importantly: what about the papers that not (yet) joined? The FT has rejected IPSO outright in favour of its own editorial complaints system (possibly because of that paper's greater global reach). The Guardian and the Independent have not yet decided what they are going to do. According to the Press Gazette these papers have hinted that the choice of chair for the new regulator could change their thinking. Could the appointment of Sir Alan Moses be a game changer for them?

Whilst the public's interest in press regulation has seemingly waned in recent months, it would only take one more scandal for the touch paper to be lit again. The industry needs to get this right. The last time that changes were made to self-regulation in the 1990s there was no Facebook or Twitter. The world increasingly shows its scorn through social media. The industry could find that there is no ‘last chance saloon’ if things were to go wrong again.

So what do I think? Perhaps we need to let things bed in? I do think █ ███ ██████ █████ . That said ███ █ ████████ ██████████ █ ████ █ █ ██. Failing that, perhaps █████ █ ████ ██ █████? There is everything to play for!

What’s more, I may even consider unredacting the above, but only when I am confident that a robust, independent and fair regulator can deal with any complaints properly and I won’t therefore spontaneously combust. I hope that I won’t have to wait much longer.

What do you think? Let us know below!

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