Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Lord Grade of Yarmouth (Conservative)
My Lords, I declare an interest as a current, and fairly recent, lay member of the Press Complaints Commission. In the interests of meeting the eight-minute guillotine, I hope that the noble Baroness will take my thanks and congratulations on this debate as read.
I declare my sympathy for Lord Justice Leveson. It is hard to imagine a more difficult task than the one with which he is currently engaged, evidenced by your Lordships' debate today. Recent events suggest that it is not getting any easier. We have just had two press controversies involving unethically obtained photographs of members of our Royal Family-Prince Harry in Las Vegas and the Duchess of Cambridge in France-which have vividly highlighted the problem of content regulation in a global digital media market. I doubt it has escaped Lord Leveson's attention that the photographs of the Duchess were published in countries with regulatory regimes offered as possible solutions for the UK. On this evidence, his menu of available options seems to be shrinking.
Publication of the Duchess's photographs started in France, the country cited as having the model of strict privacy legislation-the same law that was ignored by the French magazine editor, who seemed confident that any resulting court penalty would be comfortably offset by increased circulation. Pictures were then published in the Republic of Ireland, whose system of press regulation is regarded by many as the model for the UK, with an ombudsman recognised by statute-the "statutory underpinning" many commentators and many of your Lordships are seeking for the UK. Photos then appeared in Sweden, where they have the only self-regulatory press council in Europe with the ability to fine publications that transgress. One of the only countries in Europe to operate a statutory press council is Denmark, which even has the power to jail a recalcitrant editor; and the pictures of the Duchess appeared there too. All the while, blogs across America were reproducing the images based on the freedom written into their own constitution.
I say all this not to suggest that any of the systems in other countries are wrong or that their examples should be ignored, but rather to make the point that the issue is a remarkably complicated one, however simplistic some of the rhetoric around it has become. Regulation of the press is a paradox, and a problem that has been around for hundreds of years, not because of a lack of willingness to solve it but because there are no easy answers. However, just because a perfect solution does not exist, that does not mean that we cannot now have a better system. If nothing else, I am hopeful that Lord Leveson's deliberations will redefine, and then codify in writing for the first time, the role of a new, enhanced, self-regulatory body.
In the usual blame game that follows any controversy in the UK, the old PCC has been accused and found guilty in the court of the commentariat for failing to act in ways that were well outside its remit. It was not set up or resourced as a policeman for the press, to instigate investigations into suspected wrongdoing by the press or proactively to oversee standards. It was set up to offer a free, fair and fast service for those seeking redress from publications for falsehoods, inaccuracies and so on. It has carried out this role, and continues to carry it out, with commendable independent diligence. Some Members of both these Houses of Parliament who have publicly criticised the PCC have themselves enjoyed the benefits of the PCC's ex-post-and often more important ex-ante-abilities to prevent or correct inaccurate or intrusive stories.
We are all aware, of course, of the genesis of the inquiry: the shameful actions of the News of the World et cetera. Criminal acts were perpetrated and must be punished. I cannot resist asking your Lordships what the old PCC was supposed to have been able to do to prevent phone hacking when the threat of a prison sentence proved an inadequate deterrent. However, that is a matter not for regulation but for law enforcement. Indeed, Lord Leveson himself has acknowledged that the question of criminal behaviour is for the police to examine. His inquiry, thus far, has scarcely illuminated the issue of phone hacking at all.
When Lord Leveson reports, he will be doing the British public interest a great service if he lays out a new and much enhanced written remit for the successor to the PCC, giving it powers and resources to continue its complaints role, investigate proactively and play the lead role in auditing compliance arrangements within individual titles and in naming and shaming where there are deficiencies. I believe that the proposals put forward by the newspaper industry, with some input from the Press Complaints Commission and my noble friend Lord Hunt, will become a valuable part of the solution, subject to some preconditions.
The creation of a new body with a new written remit is necessary, enshrining some principles: it must be independent, and the appointment of all its members, and the chair, must be public and transparent and independent of the press; its funding must be secure and adequate, and there needs to be a commitment that the industry will provide sufficient funds to allow the regulator to do its work; it must have powers to investigate without the trigger of the complaint, and have the mandate, resources and powers of investigation to examine systemic issues as they arise; and it must be wide-reaching. In an online age, universality of regulation is not possible. Ofcom, a statutory body, currently has no powers over broadcasters' websites, so we cannot envisage that the new system will catch everyone. However, all the major players must see that it is in their own interests to join in and to stay in.
As your Lordships may well know, my experience comes mostly from the world of broadcasting. However, while I applaud the effectiveness of statutory broadcast regulation, I do not endorse it as a model for the press. Broadcasting regulation is a creature of a peculiar circumstance: the ability to exploit spectrum, a national resource that is rightly controlled by government, such that licensing is therefore necessary. Because of the universal distribution of content enjoyed by television, there are statutory requirements of taste and decency, and, of course, impartiality. None of this is true of the press. Rightly for a statutory regulator, it is worth noting that Ofcom has no ex-ante powers to restrain publication, a crucial PCC function.
We do not have long to wait for Lord Leveson's report. He has the opportunity to produce something that will be so much clearer and more wide-ranging than what has come before. I finish by saying that, meanwhile, we should not forget that it was the journalism of the Guardian newspaper that laid bare the shortcomings of News International and the British press.