The continued excesses of the tabloids during almost every major tragedy, and indications that the reformed Press Complaints Commission has yet to win the confidence of the public, are reminders that all is not well in the relationship between the Fourth Estate and those who purchase its wares.
Falling circulation may worry the marketing and advertising departments of the national press, but millions of people buy newspapers. The familiar argument of editors and proprietors that no one is forced to buy their paper, and that anyone unhappy with the product can always purchase another title, must be set against the strenuous efforts made by their own marketing departments to persuade us to switch to their product. From where they sit, newspaper publishers regard their readers first and foremost as consumers.
Perhaps, therefore, the time has come to look at the recurrent problem of dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the press from a conventional consumer viewpoint. Consumer charters are based upon the reasonable expectations of the purchaser and the reasonable guarantees of the producer. They define the contract between manufacturers and those who purchase their products. So why not a Readers' Charter?
How would readers define their reasonable expectations of newspapers? Almost certainly accuracy would top their list of demands, closely followed by the publication of prompt and prominent corrections or apologies when inaccurate information has been published. They might also like to know when "exclusives" have been paid for. They might even request a right of reply for those who are vilified by the press.
In the past 15 years, five attempts to gain the statutory right of reply have been scuppered by the press. But why? The French, Austrians, Norwegians, Spaniards, Swedes and Dutch all have such a right.
A serious consultation exercise is required to discover what kind of charter readers want. Few political parties would risk becoming involved, but the challenge has been taken up by a small, underfunded organisation called PressWise, founded by former "victims of press abuse" and backed by concerned journalists and lawyers. Our hope is that the broader consumer movement will take up the challenge. We are unlikely to get much help from the press.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid statutory regulation, editors and proprietors devised a code of practice. The industry also funds the Press Complaints Commission it set up to adjudicate on complaints. It is a style of self- regulation to which the press rightly objects when it is conducted by the police, parliamentarians or any other guardians of the public good.
PressWise believes that a Journalists' Charter is also needed. Together, such charters would define the relationship of trust that should exist between journalists and their readers. That should make for a better product and increased sales. It would also strengthen the democratic principles that underpin the notion of a free press without having recourse to statutory regulation.
If we swallow our pride and think of ourselves as consumers of newsprint, perhaps we can turn the tyranny of the marketplace to everyone's advantage.
The writer is executive director of PressWise. Tel 0117 941 5889Reuse content