Why are we asking this now?
Because MPs on the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee (CMS) yesterday published a report calling for wide-ranging reform of the way the press operates, including demands for major changes to the libel laws and recommendations relating to an individual's right to privacy.
What prompted the report?
A number of media controversies surrounding the reporting of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the coverage of a wave of suicides in South Wales, and the revelation of Formula 1 chief Max Mosley's participation in sado-masochistic orgies, have prompted renewed claims that press standards are falling, and that the industry's self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), is flawed and ineffective.
At the same time, media organisations, supported by groups campaigning against growing threats to freedom of speech, have highlighted concerns over the UK's emergence as a global destination for libel tourism. They have also complained that a free press is being cowed by the cost of defending libel actions brought by litigants under Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs), which allow the plaintiff's lawyers to charge all their fees to the losing party.
What were the findings?
Senior members of the committee said yesterday that they could have published three reports, such was the scope of their inquiry. The MPs said libel law was now too sympathetic to the plaintiff and recommended that the burden of proof in cases brought by corporations should be reversed, so that the organisation had to prove that it had been defamed.
The committee called for "additional hurdles" to be placed in the path of non-domiciles to hamper attempts to use the UK for libel actions when the case has no obvious connection with this country. It recommended that defendants in CFA cases should be liable for only 10 per cent of the plaintiff's legal costs, not the full amount. And the MPs called for a modern statute to ensure that no further attempt could be made to use a "super-injunction" to block reporting of parliamentary proceedings.
This recommendation was prompted after the law firm Carter-Ruck tried to obtain a super-injunction to prevent coverage of a parliamentary question about Trafigura and the alleged dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast. The committee also called for the PCC to be given greater powers to enhance its credibility.
How was the report received?
Generally with much enthusiasm. The editor of Index on Censorship, Jo Glanville, said the committee's recommendations on libel were "perhaps the most significant element of the report and an unequivocal support for press freedom". The director of the PCC, Stephen Abell, welcomed the committee's conclusion that his body should not be replaced by a system overseen by government. "We are glad to see the fundamental recognition of the select committee that 'self-regulation of the press is greatly preferable to statutory regulation and should continue'."
One party that was not happy was Rupert Murdoch's News International (NI), which issued a scathing statement accusing the committee of bias. "News International believes that the select committee system has been damaged and materially diminished by this inquiry and that certain members of this CMS committee have repeatedly violated the public trust."
Why the anger?
The committee devoted a chunk of its report to the issue of phone hacking by the News of the World, which is published by NI. The committee had previously considered this matter and published a report in 2007, following the jailing of the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman. Last year The Guardian published claims that phone hacking was rife at the Sunday tabloid. The implication was that Andy Coulson, who had resigned as News of the World editor following Goodman's conviction, knew more than he was letting on.
And did he?
Coulson, who is now director of communications at the Conservative Party, was called back before MPs but they said they found him and other NI executives unhelpful. The committee accused the NI witnesses of "collective amnesia" and said of Coulson: "We have seen no evidence that Andy Coulson knew that phone hacking was taking place. However, that such hacking took place reveals a serious management failure for which as editor he bore ultimate responsibility, and we believe that he was correct to accept this and resign."
Yet that resignation was three years ago and, in spite of protests from some Conservative MPs on the committee, the report also included mention of an industrial tribunal at which a News of the World reporter was awarded £800,000 for bullying at the time of Coulson's editorship. The Tory party complained that the inclusion of this paragraph was "politically motivated".
So are there hidden agendas here?
Yes. Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors, said there was a long-running feud between two publications with different cultures and different ideologies; The Guardian and the News of the World. "There is a clash between two major newspapers, there are a lot of grey areas with allegations going back as far as 15 years. The committee seemed frustrated that it was unable to find any black and white answers," Satchwell said.
In its furious statement, News International said: "Rather than work in the public interest, certain members of the committee appear to have pursued a party-political agenda. They have worked in collusion with The Guardian, consistently leaking details of the Committee's intentions and deliberations to that newspaper."
NI is especially upset by the criticism it has faced from two Labour members, Tom Watson, a former minister, and Paul Farrelly, a former journalist for The Observer, sister title of The Guardian.
Are there any other issues at play?
Many journalists will regard the committee's criticisms of the press as payback for the embarrassment suffered by MPs in stories revealing their expenses claims. In fact, the report is generally sympathetic to the difficulties faced by the media. "There is increasing evidence that in recent years investigative journalism is being deterred by the threat and cost of having to defend libel actions," it reported.
How did the press watchdog emerge from this?
Relatively unscathed. John Whittingdale, the committee chairman, warned that the watchdog was "widely viewed as lacking credibility and authority" but he and his colleagues accepted that it had a future role.
Their solution was to beef up the PCC, changing its name to the Press Complaints and Standards Commission in order to reflect "its role as a regulator, not just a complaints handling service". It even recommended that the PCC should be given powers to impose financial penalties on newspapers which seriously breached its code and, in the most exceptional circumstances, suspend publication for one day. The PCC, said Whittingdale, "must be seen to take a far more active role in ensuring that standards are upheld".
Do we need to crack down on newspaper excesses?
* The harassment of the parents of Madeleine McCann was a new low for the tabloids
* The 'amnesia' of News International executives suggests that the press cannot be trusted to regulate itself
* The Press Complaints Commission needs a big stick to keep rogue publications in line
* On the contrary, our imbalanced libel laws are undermining serious investigative journalism
* Lawyers are gagging the press with excessive costs claims and even trying to ban coverage of parliament
* If free speech means anything, then self-regulation must be preferable to government interference