Private! Inquiry into self-regulation of the press

On The Press: A reporter is jailed for illegally accessing voicemails; a royal girlfriend is pursued by paparazzi... Isn't that the sort of bad behaviour MPs should investigate? Well, no, actually - controls are already in place to deal with it
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MPs are once again summoning the journalists and their regulators to give account of themselves. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has decided to have a short inquiry into self-regulation of the press and the efficacy of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Code of Practice. Why?

The committee, chaired by the Conservative MP John Whittingdale, says it wants to concentrate on whether self-regulation by the press offers sufficient protection against unwarranted invasions of privacy. It asks whether, if the public and Parliament are to continue to rely upon self-regulation, the PCC Code needs to be amended. It asks whether existing law on the unauthorised disclosure of personal information needs to be strengthened, and what form of regulation, if any, should apply to online news provision by newspapers and others.

What has provoked the MPs to grab the privacy baton again? They say, specifically, it is the recent case of illegal access to voicemail messages, the trade in personal data identified by the Information Commissioner, and the treatment of public figures by photographers working on behalf of the press.

These are all matters of public concern. But if a respected group of senior backbench MPs decides to investigate whether self-regulation and the PCC work, then be suspicious. These MPs are not seeking an opportunity to celebrate the good behaviour of the press and the success of self-regulation. You only inquire into what you are concerned about.

The PCC seems relaxed. Sir Christopher Meyer, its chairman, will go along to the committee hearing and give the usual polished performance of a former diplomat. Les Hinton, head of News International in Britain, will explain to the MPs how he reconciled the criminal behaviour of one of his reporters with his own chairmanship of the PCC code committee - by shedding the editor of the paper.

Let us take the select committee's specific points. They are worried about the News of the World reporter acquiring mobile voicemails of Prince Charles's staff. Yes, and the reporter and private investigator have been charged, tried and jailed. The law covered the offence; the offence was dealt with by the courts; the PCC stated its (disapproving) position and the need to promote high professional standards of journalism as soon as the case finished. What's the problem?

The trade in personal data was identified by the Information Commissioner, who has, it should be noted, no connection with the PCC or press self-regulation. The commissioner has reported large numbers of transactions between journalists and suppliers of private information. There has been one prosecution of a private detective; the information about other cases is hazy. However, although the commissioner is seeking harsher custodial sentences for those trading illegally in personal information, it remains the case that there is law covering this behaviour.

Now we come to the treatment of public figures by photographers working on behalf of the press: this, of course, refers to Kate Middleton, girlfriend of Prince William, who was over-photographed on her 25th birthday. The PCC made representations on her behalf; editors made the right noises; The Times, run by the aforementioned PCC figure Mr Hinton, said it would no longer entertain paparazzi pics. What's the problem? The PCC has done its bit. What do the MPs want to add?

Then there's the regulation of online news provision by newspapers. Only last week, Pressbof, the Press Standards Board of Finance, which funds the PCC, announced that it was extending the PCC's remit to include editorial audio-visual material on newspaper and magazine websites.

So none of these things the MPs feel the need to inquire into needs inquiring into. There is not a problem that hasn't been dealt with, continues to be dealt with or has a law in place to deal with it.

So we are left with the broad remit the committee has given itself, which is the most worrying bit: whether self-regulation continues to offer sufficient protection against unwarranted invasions of privacy and whether the PCC code needs to be amended.

Of course there are public concerns about privacy and intrusion, and they are shared by many journalists and editors. But the climate has changed since the PCC was set up 16 years ago, and the press is under much greater pressure to justify intrusion. The public, however, does not often seem too concerned about celebrities or politicians, usually taking the "live by the sword" line.

Self-regulation means, by definition, non-statutory regulation, not by politicians. So by posing the "sufficient protection" question, the MPs are re-opening the privacy law debate. The committee talks about amending the code. It is not theirs to amend. It is the editors' code.

So we must keep an eye on this committee and, if necessary, remind it of the Government's response to its last report on "privacy and media intrusion" in 2003. "The Government strongly believes that a free press is vital to the health of our democracy. There should be no laws that specifically seek to restrict that freedom, and government should not seek to intervene in any way in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish. We therefore support self-regulation."

Red faces at red tops

National newspaper sales continue to draw hyperbole and self-interested interpretation in equal measure from those who comment on them. So the story is variously a bloodbath, a long future for newspapers or, as one commentator put it: "Newspapers are going out of fashion in Britain."

That is demonstrably absurd. Yes, sales are falling, but the truth is that in January 2007 an average of 12 million national newspapers were sold each day in the UK, and an average of 13 million Sunday newspapers. If this is out of fashion then there are plenty of manufacturers, service providers and even media magnates who could cope with the condition.

As usual, the story by market sector is more revealing than the overall picture. The figures I have just given represent a year-on-year decline of 3.6 per cent for the dailies and 5.1 per cent for the Sundays. But dig a little and we find several stories.

Good news for the Independent titles (vested interest yes, but fact nonetheless). The Independent is the only national daily to increase its circulation compared with January last year. And The Independent on Sunday is the only national Sunday to increase its sale year on year. The Observer stands out as a big faller, 18 per cent year on year. But for the first time we are comparing smaller format with smaller format rather than broadsheet, and all those papers that have been through the compact revolution know that first-month figures can be deceptively high. The Observer sold only 14,000 more copies in January than in its final broadsheet month.

The bad news continues to be in the red-top tabloid sector, with dailies down 4.6 per cent and Sundays 9.7 per cent year on year. The free fall of The People continues (down 15 per cent on the previous year). The Daily Mirror was down 6.2 per cent, the worst of any daily except the Express. The Sunday Mirror was down 7.2 per cent, so this was yet another bad month for Trinity Mirror, which has put some regional titles up for sale.

In London, free wars sees Murdoch's thelondonpaper record an audited distribution of 436,000 copies against Associated's London Lite with 401,000. The one that isn't free, the Evening Standard, fell hugely yet again, its sale 18 per cent lower than a year ago.

MEDIA DIARY

Nerds in the machine

For all its lofty ideals, The Guardian's Comment Is Free site may have finally understood the tenor of its readers. Charlie Brooker's "I hate Macs" article, off the back of Apple's new Mitchell and Webb campaign, has garnered one of the site's highest response rates and revealed the peculiarly nerdy underbelly of its readership. Incidentally, first to post on the story was Brooker himself. "Hello. Charlie Brooker here," he writes. "I wrote this piffle. Then it was subbed. And whoever subbed it decided to add a bit describing Doom as 'the first shoot-em-up game'. Words fail me. They also changed every abbreviation - so 'they're' becomes 'they are' and 'it's' becomes 'it is', and so on - presumably in an attempt to inject a bit more plodding, impersonal joylessness to the whole thing. Bet they did it on a Mac, too." The Guardian's subs have restrained their responses. However, the advertising department has stuck the knife in. The video ad running beside Brooker's article online? Why, Mitchell and Webb, of course.

Crash sites

The launch of The Times website was a bit of a disaster, really, wasn't it? Excuses about web spiders fell as flat on the internet community as snow on the Fens last week. So when the Daily Mirror relaunched its site a couple of days later you would have thought a little more testing was in order. The first location they might have wanted to try was that of their own offices. When the site went live, Mirror journalists found that every time they tried to access it, their computer system, which resembles something the Soviets might have invented, crashed repeatedly. It couldn't handle all the new video-streaming.

Better by a mile (1.6km)

Can it be long until Britain drops miles as a unit of measurement? The Times, house journal of Whitehall's pen-pushing sheep, has started to give the equivalent distance in kilometres in brackets when it uses miles. It also last week used a dollar amount in a home news headline. It all seems a long time since the perhaps apocryphal days when a Hollywood film star was reported to have stepped off a transatlantic liner "looking a million dollars" and the sterling amount was given afterwards in parenthesis.

The Virgin monologues

At Virgin Media's launch on Thursday, Blondie's set was marred only by Debbie Harry's mantra-like chant between songs of "Virgin Media, Virgin Media". Yet this corporate schmaltz was outdone by failed US presidential candidate turned eco-warrior Al Gore. Standing next to Richard Branson, he finished off his address: "Let's get behind Virgin Media." He then added, almost as an afterthought: "And let's save the environment." Is nothing sacred from the mighty Virgin branding machine?

More please, Veronica

Veronica Wadley recently held a supper for her loyal lieutenants to mark five years as Evening Standard editor - a period coinciding with a 31 per cent fall in sales. The lieutenants have been rather slow to pass on the happy news that Veronica wishes to stay in the job for "five more years".

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