Can the media ever be regulated? Article icon

Can Helen Dunne reviews a lively panel discussion


The Press Complaints Commission shouldn't be able to reinvent itself. We should not automatically assume it will survive. It faces a serious challenge to its credibility and needs to prove its legitimacy. We don't have to fear regulation. [Channel 4 news anchor] Jon Snow contrasted broadcast regulation with print in a recent speech. Ofcom has not suppressed investigative journalism. If anything, the regulation has strengthened the broadcast media. The newspaper industry should have admitted its mistakes earlier, and conceded that its methods were wrong. There is a feeling that the industry has had this coming, and that it is now facing 20 years of grievances.

We should not be afraid of regulation, but as Ian Hislop pointed out at the Leveson Inquiry, there is a statutory regulatory framework and that is criminal law. Many of the disputed methods used by journalists are illegal, such as phone hacking. I think editors should be subject to regular public hearings. There should be greater accountability and transparency. We're in the judgment business as journalists. And sometimes we get it wrong. I've overplayed or underplayed stories on various occasions, and the next day thought I had got it wrong.

The public interest debate is very complicated and not that helpful. It sounds like it's interesting when you start thinking about it, but then it becomes less and less helpful as you read the judgments. Is sex interesting? It can sometimes be important. Was John Terry's private life of public interest because he was captain of the England football team? But then what about Garry Flitcroft's private life? [The former Blackburn Rovers captain applied for an injunction to prevent publication of details of his affair, and  later blamed the coverage for his father's suicide.]

The public interest argument is much more difficult to judge for tabloids than broadsheets. I would be more interested in an agreed method for how you get the story than discussions about what constitutes public interest.


We are going to see a step change in journalism and in media regulation as a consequence of the Leveson Inquiry. Proceedings so far seem to indicate what we will see is a new body with three arms; a complaints arm (pretty much what the PCC does at the moment), a standards arm to look at compliance and some of the bigger ethical issues and Leveson himself (along with others) is proposing an arbitral arm to mediate and arbitrate on defamation and libel cases.

I have to point out that the PCC has only been able to carry out the remit it has been given. Leveson has said that it has been universally acknowledged that the mediation and complaints work of the PCC has been excellent. Ultimately it will be for the newspaper and magazine industry to agree to give a new regulatory body a bigger remit.

The Northern and Shell withdrawal [when Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers, pulled out of the PCC] did expose a flaw in the system which Leveson will have to tackle. Self-regulation relies on buy-in. N&S's withdrawal is clearly due to personality clashes with other industry figures rather than a substantive problem with the way the PCC handles complaints and Leveson will need to address this either by stick (statute) or carrot (recognition in defamation or privacy cases).

Ultimately, we will have to decide how independent the new regulatory body will be. There have been suggestions that there should be no editors on it or that editors advise but don't vote on adjudication so some expertise is still present. Polling shows that public confidence in the PCC remains high despite the hacking controversy. But, having said that, it is clear that some of the extremely high profile cases that have come before Leveson - the McCanns [who criticised certain press coverage of their daughter's disappearance], the Dowlers [who were appalled to discover their murdered daughter's mobile phone had been hacked], the Watsons [who claimed ill-informed and inaccurate articles about their daughter's murder contributed to their teenage son's suicide] and Chris Jefferies [the former landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates who was vilified in the media] - the PCC would not have been able to handle because it didn't have the authority or power. There is a growing consensus that the new regulatory body will need a standards arm to deal with these kinds of cases.

The remit the PCC currently has is to administer and enforce the Editors' Code of Practice primarily by dealing with complaints about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines. We aim to promote high standards by developing clear guidance and practical principles through our rulings, and offering training and advice to editors and journalists.


Journalism is history written in a hurry. The newspaper industry is not a hindsight profession either. Mistakes are made; it goes with the territory, if you are to have a free press. But there needs to be a tough regulatory system in place to deal with complaints and mistakes and to resolve them.

The Press Complaints Commission has been accused of failing and not being fit for purpose. It has been the whipping boy in recent times. But the reality is its remit was not wide enough or tough enough. I believe a free press - a really free press - is essential for a free society. But free does not mean free for all. The problem is that some journalists and senior newspaper executives have behaved appallingly and let the industry down.

There are regulations and checks already in place. There are laws to prevent excesses. Too many people have adopted what I would call the 'Arsene Wenger defence' [the Arsenal manager often says 'I didn't see it' in post match interviews if there is a bad tackle or refereeing decision in his favour].

I am therefore nervous of more statutory regulation although I fear that it is the likely outcome of the Leveson Inquiry. I certainly don't welcome it because I believe there are enough laws and checks in place to tame the excesses of the press. But I do believe a self-regulatory body - a PCC with teeth if you like - would be preferable. It would enable journalists to know - and importantly the newspaper executives who oversee them - exactly what the boundaries are. They will know the rules and the journalists will be able to point that out to them. It would be a level playing field.

I feel the balance of power has shifted too much from reporters to executives. They are dictating the news agenda far too much. Reporters are under extreme pressure to come up with exclusive stories from people who aren't on the ground.

I worked in Fleet Street for more than 20 years as a reporter and an executive. The job of the reporter is, I believe, the most important one because without the reporter, the one coming up with the stories from their contacts, there is no front page or back page splash. Unfortunately, I believe that position is being undermined by senior executives. That in turns means that reporters take less responsibility, and blame the news editor or editor for inaccuracies or misrepresentations.

The job of the reporter in a free press is to publish the story, to get as close to the truth as you possibly can (there will always be people who lie and try to block the truth) and not to apologise for upsetting the apple cart.

The trouble is the press industry has downgraded the role and status of the reporter. Pay for entry level jobs in Fleet Street, as it was, hasn't changed in 25 years. Long-term, it's a threat to the profession. It is important for the industry to train reporters properly. The demise of the local paper industry means new recruits to the national newspaper industry are not doing their apprenticeships in local papers on the road.

The right to disturb, offend and outrage is accepted in the European Court of Human Rights. That means the reporter is not there to just swallow the latest bit of spin and stick it in the paper. I believe if someone is creating their own publicity, trading on their position, they are fair game to be written about in the media.

I would argue, however, that this new scrutiny of the media and possibly regulation should not just apply to the press. The PR industry should be regulated too if the press is to be, so that they can be held to account if they put out something that is wrong or deliberately misleading.

The newspaper industry is in the business of selling newspapers. If it fails to do this, it will go out of business. The big question, in the future, is will people turn to other forms of media that are not regulated? The reality is that other forms of media that aren't regulated, such as Twitter, are already taking the lead particularly with younger people who just don't buy newspapers. It is therefore essential that we do not regulate our free press out of business.

I do not believe the press should be regulated like broadcasters. News agendas are often set by the newspaper headlines and expanded upon and discussed in the broadcast media. A free press is essential for a free society. But there should be the right self-regulatory checks and balances in place with a PCC-style body with teeth to ensure it is a responsible press. Ultimately, I believe getting the story spot on is the best form of defence. We should not regulate the belting scoop out of existence.


Journalists are in a privileged position in our constitution and want to be treated as a profession. I think that is right but they should be regulated like solicitors or financial advisers as well. If they break the rules they should be suspended or thrown out of the profession and that should apply to owners and executives working in the media, not just journalists. The public should be able to look up people and media companies on the Internet and see their full regulatory record.

Media lawyers are expensive because Parliament and the courts have made libel, privacy and data protection law so complicated and contradictory that there are only a small number of solicitors and barristers qualified to deal with the work. Parliament has abdicated its responsibility to make a UK privacy law, leaving it to judges to make it up as they go along based on ambiguous principles from EU law.

I think that Ofcom and the broadcast media are a good example of successful media regulation but you cannot transplant that into printed or online media. That would be like comparing apples and oranges. Broadcast media generally is not allowed to be biased. Whereas print and online media are bastions of plurality in free expression, ranging from original and inspirational to the dangerous, evil or just plain crazy. You could not apply Ofcom-type rules to print and online media. They would be unenforceable and would kill a lot of the variety which is the spice of our media diet.

The concern expressed by national print media that over-regulation will leave them open to unfair competition from the 'wild west' of the Internet is overplayed. There are a greater number of players on the web and most of them do not come anywhere near to the reputation and influence of our traditional media. Most rational people take what they read on the web with a huge pinch of salt but many would take what the national press say as the gospel truth. David Bowie's wife was recently reported as saying that her husband didn't believe anything he read or heard unless it was on the BBC. There will therefore always be a demand for reliable media as well as all the entertaining 'froth' of the Internet.

I think Parliament is the body with the authority to decide what is in the public interest, not the judges. MPs decide what rights and responsibilities people have in our country and legislate for this. Sometimes these conflict, and judges have to weigh up the evidence each way to see where the balance is between competing rights in any particular case, say between the rights to privacy and free expression. This is no different from any other court case where judges look at the evidence and the law. The problem is in understanding how far the law of privacy should extend. That is where Parliament needs to decide what is in the public interest rather than let judges decide based on some notion of what a reasonable person's expectation of privacy is.