We’ve seen what light touch regulation gets you in food (donkey burgers). We’ve seen what light touch regulation gets you in banking (Stephen Hester). We’ve seen decades of abuse by the gutter press owned by and protecting the rich and powerful. Now, that same press is wailing about ‘freedom of the press’. Bella doesn’t buy it. There’s virtual blanket condemnation with bloggers tripping over themselves to act all tough and get in with the big boys. Robin McAlpine is one of the rare exceptions when he says: “The media’s reporting of the politic of press regulation shames it. It demonstrates a hypocrisy and abuse of power it would not tolerate in others. With each new editorial it’s credibility and reputation slip further.” More here.
Maybe it’s because I have spent most of my working life working in a regulated sector, in regulated bodies working within regulated activities and on regulated issues. But I am struggling to get as worked up about the McCluskey proposals as well, everyone else.
Indeed, I was one who encouraged and then helped the state regulate the sector I have worked in for 13 years. Because all of us on the side of regulation wanted there to be rules which protected the public but also separated the good from the bad – and gave a regulator powers with which to find the bad and weed it out. Bad practice, including illegal acts, tarnished us all.
Maybe I just don’t understand the implications of what is being proposed – or maybe what I don’t get is that the proposed regulated industry gets to call the shots here. Maybe if it – the good bits – had called to account the very rotten apples operating in the press this last decade and more and taken responsibility for cleaning up their own industry, I’d be happier to leave it to them. But they didn’t. Every decent journalist and press publication worth its salt knew, or at least, heard the rumours and stayed schtum. They proved – even though they are good people who do a sterling job – that they cannot be trusted to clean up their industry’s act.
Maybe I should be concerned that my hobby – blogging and commenting on a wide range of current affairs and topical issues – will be caught by the McCluskey proposals too. But I am not. Indeed, I rather think that given the rise of the blogger and the occasional impact a good blogpost can have on the news agenda and the views and thoughts of professional journalists, it would be a folly not to apply a statutory scheme of regulation to this burgeoning industry. And while McCluskey did not totally work out the details of how to apply boundaries to a virtual world which by its very nature, operates without and across boundaries, at least it tried. When Leveson didn’t.
It would be utterly inappropriate for any press regulatory scheme to apply controls to printed material without also applying the same rules to what “significant news publishers” produce online. That would mean the same companies operating under different criteria across different platforms. It is as ridiculous as it seems.
There are many flaws in the proposed draft bill which appears at Appendix 3 of the McCluskey report. It might be these which are causing the Scottish Government to cast aside a piece of work which it commissioned with no little fanfare with almost indecent haste. I hope not and that rather, the dampening down of expectation of implementation is linked to more prosaic and pragmatic reasons. Such as that Westminster might deliver more than Cameron wants by voting for a statutorily underpinned regulator which comes close to the kind of body the SNP envisaged for Scotland. A UK wide body would after all, remove at least one criticism levelled at the SNP’s ambitions, that of creating unnecessary different regulatory regimes for UK wide press operators.
But the draft bill shouldn’t be discarded just because the press doesn’t like it. Some of a contrary nature might suggest that that in itself provides a very good reason to proceed.
Nor should we never try to apply some rules to how people – professionals and amateurs alike – behave in the virtual world. Where criminal offences occur, they are rightly pursued and prosecuted. But surely there is a role for civil law in conduct and content published on online and more traditional platforms? A statutorily defined regulatory scheme can be and ought to be about raising standards and ensuring that everyone plays to society’s rules rather than their own.
Other laws creating such regimes have been passed which managed fine to balance a range of interests, not least the need to not only comply with, but further human rights. Indeed, the irony is not lost on me that the very people squealing like stuck pigs at the thought of any form of control being applied to their own workings and doings have regularly made shrill calls on politicians and institutions to act to tighten the operating environment of others who have failed to meet basic standards in how they go about their business. The idea that the only part of society allowed to operate unfettered by any rules or standards no longer stacks up.
McCluskey’s draft bill needs a lot of work – one clear flaw which could be readily addressed is the concentration of power over appointment of Commissioner and regulator in the hands of government. That could be fixed by giving that role to the Scottish Parliament, ensuring political balance and an investment of responsibility to our democratic institution. As happens for a range of commissions and commissioners.
The compulsory element is necessary, for anything else would be unworkable. And any regulatory regime – whether created by Westminster or Holyrood – must encompass the blogosphere. If we want to be taken seriously, then we have to agree to apply the same rigorous standards to what we do as are expected of traditional press outlets and individuals. And just as a whole host of other regulated entities have to do, significant news publishers must contribute to the costs of regulation, though start up costs should be provided by government and those outlets which do not charge or otherwise solicit funds to help produce their content, be waived from fees. That might require an ongoing, modest injection of cash from public funds
Some rights are absolute – the right to freedom of expression is not one of them. Restrictions apply and the press’s right to express its views, opinions and reportage freely does not over-ride other and others’ rights. Indeed, far from providing a threat to the right to freedom of expression, a statutorily underpinned regulatory regime might in fact result in such a right being more cherished, upheld and applied. With other human rights similarly treated.
Nope, for this individual who spends much of their working and daily life being regulated in a whole host of ways, I’m struggling to see what the fuss is about. A free and healthy press operates neither above nor outwith the rest of society. In recent times, it has proven itself incapable and unwilling to regulate itself. And while the nefarious, criminal practices laid bare by Leveson appear to have ended, there is not a lot of evidence of the rotten apples having cleaned up their act in terms of how and what they report. Day in, day out, people’s human rights are being breached in the pursuit of a story. The very, very good in the industry are still having their reputations trashed by the very, very bad. Far from being a disaster, statutorily underpinned regulation – whichever legislature takes it forward – might actually be the best thing that could happen to an industry currently on its knees.