Brian Cathcart: Bad editors have blown it for the rest

When national titles misbehave and then close ranks, they bring state regulation of the press one step closer

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Very few people in this country actively want to see state regulation of the press. The idea of government servants giving orders to editors smacks of censorship, of departing from cherished traditions in which journalism has been free to challenge authority.

Our politicians – the people who, if we had such regulation, would have to take the responsibility – are as reluctant as anyone. No minister in the present government has expressed support for the idea. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, when he called for a review of press conduct last week, said he didn't want it. And the Commons Media Select Committee stated bluntly last year that statutory regulation "would represent a very dangerous interference with the freedom of the press".

But be assured, state regulation of the press is on the table for discussion and will be talked about more often over the next two years as the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World unfolds.

This is not because British people have ceased to care about freedom of expression or because they trust their politicians more than they used to, but because the national press – not just in the phone hacking case but generally – has proved itself unable and unwilling to regulate itself.

A 58-year experiment in formal press self-regulation, overhauled 20 years ago when the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) replaced the discredited Press Council, has failed. The PCC, it turns out, is no more than its title suggests: a complaints body capable of correcting individual mistakes but exercising very limited restraint on the overall behaviour of the industry.

Time and again when a big story breaks – think Madeleine McCann, think Bridgend suicides, think Ipswich murders, think the Jo Yeates murder in Bristol – editors do what they want, or what the traditions of their industry dictate, or what they believe the increasingly desperate newspaper market conditions demand, and they ignore or forget the lessons of past errors and misdeeds.

The PCC hardly ever dares call them to account, and if anyone else tries – politicians, judges, other newspapers – they are brushed aside with contempt. If papers have to pay damages or compensation they fork out like naughty schoolboys, grumbling as they do so, and then with a snigger get straight back to business as usual.

To speak of naughty schoolboys is misleading, however, because these people are powerful, and they can use their power with breathtaking cynicism. One of the most striking characteristics of the phone hacking scandal is the way in which other tabloid papers have supported the News of the World.

If you rely on a popular tabloid for your news, you would need to have been pretty sharp-eyed over the past few months to learn that Andy Coulson resigned as David Cameron's media chief because of this scandal, or that three more journalists have been arrested, or that, after telling one story for four years in the teeth of many challenges, News International has now admitted that story was false.

It is an important matter by any definition (and it even comes with celebrities attached), but the editors of the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, not to mention The Sun, have given it the most grudging coverage – for the cynical reason, you have to believe, that it makes them all look bad.

This is a collective cover-up of failure and wrongdoing, and it is characteristic of an industry that does not behave responsibly and has no interest in addressing its own faults.

Was it ever thus? Are we just rehearsing the same arguments that were aired to the Royal Commission on the Press of 1949 and kicked around again 20 years ago, when we first heard that line about the last chance saloon? To a degree, no doubt. The cynical use of power runs pretty deep in Fleet Street history.

But whether or not standards of journalism have fallen, the world outside Fleet Street has changed. There are few walks of life which have not been transformed in the past generation by the demands of transparency and accountability, by the need to be able to show that you behave properly and responsibly in your work.

Think of social workers in the wake of Baby P and other scandals. Think of the police after Stephen Lawrence. Think of the railways after Potters Bar. Think of MPs' expenses, of body parts in hospitals, of military equipment purchasing, of local government pay, of blood transfusion management, of water company profits.

All around us, organisations have learnt to hear criticism, to test systems and to recognise and confront failure. Some of this change is down to the courts, while some, significantly, is driven by the fear that shortcomings will be exposed in the press.

Paradoxically, one industry that has hardly begun to make this cultural shift is the press itself. Editors with ultimate responsibility for shocking errors (take for example the persistent libelling of Robert Murat in the McCann case) almost never resign. Nor, after such errors, do newspapers, on the whole, conduct internal inquiries, still less lay bare their decision-making processes for external scrutiny. Nor, so far as I am aware, do they reprimand journalists found to be at fault, or send them for training, or (horror!) publicly identify them.

Social workers, teachers, police officers and others who are often on the wrong end of press coverage would be appalled if they were aware of the cavalier way in which journalism (with few exceptions) excuses itself from responsibility for fault.

Editors like to say their accountability is their sales, that if the public doesn't like what they see they won't buy the product. Alas, as sales fall almost across the board, no editor has drawn the obvious conclusion.

The press claims a special privilege. Unlike almost any other industry, it believes it must not bear any weight of government or statutory regulation, because that has implications for freedom of expression. At the same time, it also treats privacy and libel laws as so many affronts to its ancient rights, bringing all its influence to bear to secure the arrangements that suit it. And, because it can, it routinely denounces or ridicules any judges or politicians who cross its path.

But, as the leader writers tell us, with privileges go responsibilities, and most editors are not interested in discharging the responsibilities that go with operating an important public service (which is what the press is).

Instead, the last chance saloon is still open and editors and their chums are at the bar, chucking down the fine wines, paying the occasional bill in the form of damages to their victims, but otherwise having a good laugh at our expense. If, after all these years, somebody calls time, they will complain like hell, but they will have only themselves to blame.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

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