Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning. It seems to me that we need to assess what has gone before in terms of self regulation of the press in order to consider what should happen in the future. Because it is in relation to its contract with the public that self-regulation has been found wanting, and where it now desperately needs to rebuild trust.
In researching my speech today, I came across some interesting archive material. One was a report in 2003 of appearances both Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian and I, when I was editor of The Independent, made at a House of Commons Select Committee into self-regulation. We both made the point that the PCC had lost the confidence of the public.
I said that the impression the organisation gave was of a cosy, self-interested club. Alan said that there could be a role for an ombudsman to arbitrate when complainants wanted to appeal PCC decisions instead of going straight to litigation.
I suggested there might even be a role for Ofcom, raising the spectre of some sort of government involvement in press regulation. I was attacked for such heretical suggestions by colleagues in the industry. The editor of the Observer said I should be taken out and shot, while Paul Dacre suggested that I had betrayed the entire industry.
Anyway, I looked up the report from the time, and it said that other editors had vigorously defended the system of press regulation of the time. And who were those editors, these crusaders for truth, who felt that nothing needed changing? That the public interest was being served? In no particular order, step forward Piers Morgan of the Daily Mirror, Andy Coulson of the News of the World and Rebekah Wade of the Sun.
I tell this story not to show how ahead of the game I was but to show how far we have come in discussing self-regulation. Even Paul Dacre, at the Leveson Inquiry, put forward the idea of an ombudsman to name, shame and fine miscreant newspapers. The discussion has moved on, and the need to reassure the public that, in the wake of everything, the press can regulate itself is pressing.
I am not here today to discuss the individual suggestions put forward by Lord Hunt, most of which seem perfectly sensible and logical to me. And, as you can see, I am no defender of the PCC as was. All I’d like to do is make a couple of points for you to consider. The first is that, whatever the failings of the PCC in the phone-hacking case – and they were less asleep than comatose – we should be clear that this was a scandal born not of PCC incompetence.
Phone hacking wasn’t a failure of self-regulation. It was fostered by a culture of criminality in which the highest levels of the police and government were happy to be complicit. where journalists felt themselves to be above the law, of an organisational abuse of power on a grand scale. The public should not be allowed to think that the phone-hacking scandal would not have happened had self-regulation been stronger. That suits polticians.
Yes, the PCC should have been stronger in this, and in other ways. But self-regulation of the press was less to blame for phone hacking than Tony Blair, David Cameron and a succession of police chiefs. This was about an organisation whose position of commercial dominance left them to feel above the law, never mind regulation.
The other narrow point I’d like to make is that running a newspaper these days, whether it be a local or national paper, is a pretty tricky business. The commercial pressures are immense. The challenges are severe. Most of our national newspapers have severe financial worries, and local papers are going under at a rate of knots. We do have a vibrant and diverse press that, in most respects, is the end of the world and is an effective bulwark to the rich and the powerful.
With every newspaper that dies, a little piece of our democracy goes with it. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but whatever reforms eventually emerge from the deliberations of Lord Justice Leveson, they must bear in mind the practical realities of newspaper life these days, the diminishing resources, the pressure of time, and the general lack of investment.
I’d like to see a system of self-regulation that, yes, serves the public better, but also does not burden newspapers with excessive bureaucracy and cost, and does not constrain their freedom to seek the truth, often going to the very margins of legality. Journalism, like democracy, can sometimes be messy. And in the rush to condemn we should not forget that.