Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Lord Janvrin (Crossbench)
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady O'Neill for instigating this debate this morning, particularly as I was a member of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions that reported earlier this year.
I pay tribute to my noble friend's contribution to the thinking in this area over many years, not least in her Reith Lectures of 2002 entitled "A Question of Trust". I mention that, as did the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, because the question of trust lies at the heart of this issue of effective press regulation, a point to which I shall return.
I agree that it is timely to have this debate on some of the key principles underlining the whole question of regulation before the Leveson inquiry reports, because it offers an opportunity to probe a little more deeply into the "what" and the "why" of effective press regulation before tackling the "how", and in particular whether there should be a new system of self-regulation or the introduction of some form of statutory underpinning.
The "what" of effective press regulation is trying to answer the question, "What should that regulatory system be for?". The distinction to which my noble friend drew attention is important. She drew attention to the fundamental distinction between the regulation of content and the regulation of process. It goes without saying that anyone should tread exceedingly carefully if talking about the regulation of content. I do not think that anyone seriously doubts that a regular supply of independent, informative, critical, investigative, irreverent, entertaining press content is essential to any free and democratic system as we understand it, certainly in this country.
There are of course restrictions on press freedoms, which were mentioned by my noble friend, particularly in terms of defamation or the difficult balance to be struck with the individual's right to privacy. That raises the related question of how best to define the public interest. Those crucial issues, which will rightly be drawn into the debate on effective press regulation are hugely important, but I want to concentrate my brief remarks today on the regulation of process and conduct.
What do we mean by the effective regulation of journalistic conduct? We are talking, for example, about standards of fairness, balance and the separation of fact and opinion, or the conduct in the way in which stories are obtained or inaccuracies are corrected. This seems to be the key point: how can effective press regulation maintain, and if possible improve, standards of practice and behaviour? Certainly accepted codes of conduct have a crucial role to play, setting out what is judged acceptable and what is not. Any new regulatory system needs to be the setter of standards and, if possible and where necessary, the mechanism of change as society's views on those standards evolve. It seems to me that the best people to determine what those standards should be are those in the media and the press industry itself. They know their business and how best to define best practice; in other words, self-regulation has relevance when setting the rules.
But the question of what a regulatory system should be for does not end there. It is about upholding those rules and standards: how do people seek redress when they think that standards have been breached? An effective system will allow a quick, simple and affordable way for individuals to challenge newspapers on their behaviour and standards. Some form of arbitration or ombudsman role-one with teeth, as many now accept-seems essential. Here, independence is imperative and this to my mind is where self-regulation in the form of arbitration, however it is dressed up, seems to undermine the whole principle of independence and weaken trust in the system.
That brings me on to the "why" of press regulation. Why is effective press regulation so crucial in today's age? In my view, the greatest threat to the best of our media in this country lies not in overregulation, but in the commercial pressures of the digital age. Fewer people are buying newspapers, local or national, because they can get their news elsewhere-online-and they can get their opinion elsewhere, from the blogosphere. But we are much more likely to be willing to continue to pay for news and opinion if we know that they are of the highest standards; in other words, if we trust the provider. This seems to be the best reason for effective press regulation. If it helps to maintain and drive up standards, effective press regulation can contribute to the commercial viability and health of the industry, not detract from it. As a point of detail, I am not sure that those who argue for self-regulation have thought creatively enough about certification or kite marking in this whole business, not only as a way of driving up standards but in order to encourage the widest possible adherence to any regulatory system.
This brings me to the "how". The question in my mind is: how do you arrange an effective system of press regulation that is truly independent of government, business or the newspaper industry itself? It has to be universally accepted by the press, it has to set standards, to act as an arbiter and ombudsman, and have the teeth and the sanctions to ensure that those standards are met. Can it do all these things without some form of statutory underpinning and yet be considered to be truly independent? I look forward to seeing what the Leveson inquiry concludes.