Brian Cathcart: If a press regulator is to have teeth, it must be backed by law

Ask yourself: how often does my paper publish libel? How frank is it about mistakes it makes?
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The Independent Online

Here is a challenging proposition: the Press Complaints Commission is actually quite good at what it does. The commission's problem is that the job in question is nothing like the job that its masters in the press have always pretended it does. It is a complaints service. It is not a regulator and has almost nothing to do with the general standards of the press.

For years, editors and proprietors have claimed that the commission was upholding standards, even though they knew perfectly well that it was so badly equipped for that task that it scarcely tried. Now that dishonesty is exposed.

It's not a matter of judging by what the PCC did or didn't do in relation to phone-hacking; it's a matter of looking at standards over, say, the past five years. It is clear that they often fall far short of what the public has a right to expect.

What is to be done? One of the inquiries proposed by David Cameron will address that question.The inquiry's members will soon discover that they are not the first. Three royal commissions since 1948 have done so, and the Calcutt inquiry of 1990, as well as, only last year, the Commons media committee.

So the arguments can seem stale. Critics of self-regulation point out that the PCC is funded by the press and has no power to sanction, while editors and others warn that state regulation would amount to censorship. They say that if a regulator had the power to impose fines, it would become an expensive battleground for lawyers.

Inevitably, someone refers to the "last-chance saloon" in which David Mellor warned the press they were drinking. More than 20 years on, they are still in there, mainly because nobody has found the door.

Now, even Paul Dacre is gingerly grasping a doorknob, a Daily Mail editorial declaring that the commission "needs to come up with a serious package of reforms to restore its credibility". That particular door won't open because the PCC will be abolished.

To escape the saloon, two connected issues must be confronted: sanctions and the role of the state. If the past 20 years have shown us anything, it is that editors are not deterred by the fear they might ultimately have to print a correction. A new regulator will need teeth; the public will not settle for less.

With teeth goes state involvement, because only the law can make a newspaper submit to punishment. Without the backing of the law, the PCC's successor must be a voluntary organisation whose members are free to quit at any time, and sanctions can't work if a newspaper can walk away.

So escaping from the saloon almost certainly means creating a statutory body. Many editors and journalists will warn of the danger of censorship; others will say that news broadcasting is satisfactorily regulated under statute by the BBC Trust and Ofcom, so why not the press?

There will be a lot of shouting, but we will find it easier to separate the bluster from the genuine concerns if we bear in mind that this is about journalistic ethics.

So when an editor or proprietor speaks, ask yourself about the quality of the journalism he or she represents. How often does that paper publish libel? How frank is it about its mistakes? Does it gratuitously invade privacy? Is it fastidious about identifying its sources? Does it let people respond to allegations?

Editors and proprietors with a good record are probably trying to protect good journalism; those with a bad record are trying to protect something different.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University, London, and an organiser of Hacked Off! (