Bill Hagerty on the press

Editors should not rejoice at their tormentor's departure
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The Independent Online

For those who considered his constant monitoring of press excesses an irritant, the good news was that the Labour MP Clive Soley had decided to stand down at the next general election. Now, for that same, defensive, coterie, here's the bad news: although bowing out of his Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush London constituency after 25 years in the Commons, Soley will not be suspending the vigilance with which he studies newspapers and those who run them. From a base yet to be decided, he'll be as irritating as ever.

Although often disagreeing with his views on how the press should be disciplined to ensure accuracy and prevent unwarranted intrusion, I believe that, as a self-appointed watchdog, Soley has been good for the industry. The knowledge that blatant editorial misbehaviour was likely to be met by condemnation from within Parliament helped no end to concentrate the minds of those chancers for whom the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice was seen as an obstacle to be circumvented by any means possible.

Soley believes standards have improved, although he remains convinced that there should be some form of statutory control to ensure that miscreants pay for wilful flaunting of the rules. I do not. Allowing the political or legal systems to influence the press would be like putting foxes in charge of the chicken coop. But I do believe newspapers must be seen to make strenuous efforts to rescue a tattered reputation.

That's why I was especially interested, when we met at Labour's Brighton conference, to hear Soley's latest wheezes for helping those with genuine grievances obtain redress from offending newspapers. To begin with, he thinks every national paper or group should appoint a readers' editor to deal with complaints and inaccuracies, and that the position should be ring-fenced, making interference from the editor - or delivery of a P45 - prohibited. Then he advocates the prominent publication, in every copy of our papers, of the name of the editor and of the readers' editor, together with contact information.

The second of Soley's suggestions seems straightforward enough. Many regional papers and most of those published in the United States already supply such information, often below a reproduction of the masthead on the editorial page.

As for the appointment of a readers' editor, or ombudsman, it is astonishing how sluggish some titles have been in responding to a Guardian initiative designed to convince disgruntled readers that their complaints would not be dispatched promptly to the waste basket. There has been a useful by-product, too, in that some columns of correction and clarification have themselves become an entertaining feature.

At this newspaper, Guy Keleny, the letters editor, deals with complaints and inaccuracies and writes such a column. But the arrangements of the rest range from the dedicated role of Ian Mayes, at The Guardian, to part-time ambulance chasers without time or proper remit.

As for editors being unable to control or remove their readers' editors, only Mayes has such a guarantee of autonomy. But, as Soley readily acknowledges, the unique structure of The Guardian, controlled by an independent trust, enables the company more easily to offer the facility. Elsewhere, Soley's concept is complicated by editors who might resent a member of staff with so much power, and financial restraints that preclude the creation of a full-time post.

Yet I suspect that, eventually, all papers will see the advantages of a one-person rapid-response unit. That editors would no longer have Soley snapping around their heels is just one of them.

Losing libel cases is good for the law

A cluster of newspaper and broadcasting groups have united (a rare occurrence) to demand changes in rules regarding no-win, no-fee arrangements in libel cases.

On the surface, at least, the 13 media organisations lobbying the Government over what they see as pernicious deals with lawyers seem to have a good case. Conditional fee agreements (CFAs) are those where our legal friends are paid nothing if they lose, but can claim more than their normal fees if the case is won. In libel cases, this sometimes means a 100 per cent "success fee" to be paid by the losing side. Such a potential financial drubbing is putting "intolerable pressure" on media groups to settle cases they normally would fight.

That lawyers' fees are often "wildly disproportionate to the damages recoverable" will come as no surprise to anyone. But my learned friend Geoffrey Bindman, a libel advocate of great skill and experience, points out that the matter is more complex than at first it seems.

Lawyers need to be encouraged to take on cases which they may lose, says Bindman. And newspaper groups who are the defendants can avoid problems to a large extent by, instead of fighting weak cases, correcting their errors and settling quickly before large costs are incurred.

If the papers could unite to improve standards of accuracy and fairplay, they'd be quids-in.