Green Ink on the Mediocracy

Sir Alan Moses and how to convince the press to submit to independent regulation

Sir Alan Moses

Sir Alan Moses, the chairman of IPSO, the new press regulator being set up by some of the newspaper publishers, last week gave a lecture on its progress at the London School of Economics.

The gist of the lecture was that for regulation to work, those who are regulated must be convinced of the incentives to submit to it. Without this conviction, the newspapers will ignore it as an illegitimate foreign body. Sir Alan has taken up this challenge because he thinks it is the only chance of achieving the objectives of altering the behaviours of the newspapers, and he thinks that he is the person with the best chance of success. He claimed to be making progress, but he declined to give any detail.

One has to hope then that what he says in private to his – clients(?) is altogether different from what he says in public, because he certainly did not make any convincing arguments for why it might be in their interests to submit to independent regulation.

He talked about "meta-regulation", being a second regulatory superstructure that tries to put in place incentives that encourage the industry to establish and subscribe to a sufficiently independent and robust form of self-regulation. The Royal Charter, and the new Crime and Courts Act provide these incentives through a provision that once a regulator has been established and recognised by the recognition panel (established under the Royal Charter), then a newspaper that refuses to use the arbitration service offered by the regulator, and forces a complainant to pursue it through the courts and incur all the costs of doing so, may then be liable to pay those costs, even when the court finds in favour of the newspaper.

Sir Alan said that these incentives have not even come into effect, and so they must be given a chance to work. In the meantime, it is critical to keep the IPSO show on the road, and let him get on with negotiations and keeping the newspapers at the table.

The problem with this argument is that we can't be confident that these incentives ever will come into effect. The press, and ultimately the proprietors, are exceptionally powerful, and have unaccountable influence over the political structures that are supposed to be the ultimate authority and represent the will of the people. The national outcry over the phone-hacking of Milly Dowler, and the Leveson Inquiry that resulted from it was a brief window during which elected politicians were able to break free of this yoke on their reputations (and therefore their jobs, and their mandates).

By the time the Leveson report was published, the window had almost closed, the Prime Minister announced there would be no legislation, and Oliver Letwin convened secret meetings with newspaper executives to come up with a proposal for a self-regulator that could operate without independent oversight and that they could nevertheless claim was the 'toughest in the Western world'.

However, those campaigning for independent regulation, including a sufficient number of Conservative MPs, managed to wedge the window open for just long enough to establish the 'meta-regulator' by means of the Royal Charter and pass the incentives legislation.

Throughout, the tabloid press and the right-wing broadsheets fought a propaganda campaign to discredit anyone advocating independent regulation as somehow corrupt and malfeasant and motivated only by a desire to hide their venal activities from the public. They also continuously mischaracterise any attempt by government to guarantee the independence of the regulator as politicians assuming the power to themselves interfere with and censor the press, publishing advertisements with pictures of Mugabe and Kim Jong Un.

With the election campaign now in full swing, when no parliamentary candidate can afford to make enemies in the media, the window is firmly shut. The incentive for newspapers to create their own independent regulator was always the threat that if they did not then there would be no alternative than to do it by statute. This may never have been a credible threat, but as Sir Alan pointed out, none of the parties seem likely to have anything to say about this in their manifestos. Time is on the side of the newspapers. Outrage over Milly Dowler long ago subsided, and their continuing campaign of misinformation has left the public confused and exhausted.

He gives plenty of good (and obvious) reasons for why it is better for the regulator that the regulated be willing participants. He does not give any for why the newspapers should be willing.

Moses goes on to claim that the 'vituperative' criticisms of IPSO are making it even more difficult because there is little possibility of reaching an agreement on what the basic objectives of regulation should be, but as Damian Tambini has written, the objective is straightforward. It is that the Editor's Code of Conduct should be complied with and enforced. Hardly controversial since as the name suggests, the editors write it themselves.

What was really disappointing in this speech was that Moses seemed to himself undermine the Code, arguing that "If readership is anything to go by, and it must be some reflection of public acceptability of standards in the press, prurience is regarded as a public principle…freedom of the press seems to be freedom to learn of the product of intrusion and subterfuge." Of course there are borderline cases where one can argue about whether there is a public interest justification, but repeating the disingenuous argument that when people read a newspaper, they thereby signal their approval of everything it does is surely beneath him. Taking a prurient interest in what is already in the public domain is a very long way from actually spying on and exposing peoples' private lives.

As he goes on to say, "the successful newspapers are those whose methods are most vigorously deplored." And this is precisely why independent regulation is simply not in their own commercial interests. He later quotes a managing editor of the Sun: "In the end, what newspapers find most marketable is credibility." The evidence does not support this, as he appears to acknowledge in his conclusion:

...... Such an insight may not be novel, but it is, I believe, the truth; no-one has ever promised that the truth would be interesting…and is not that where the problems all began?

The credibility that newspapers do value however, is that which allows them to make the case that they are serious about constructing a new regulator, and that no independent oversight will be necessary. The longer they can keep this going, the more the political will dissipates, and their grotesque and corrupt business model will survive intact.

If Sir Alan Moses is to have any hope of persuading the newspapers that it is in their interests to submit to genuine independent regulation, he needs all the criticism and 'vituperation' he can get. He needs to convince them that the public will has not dissipated, and that they have not recaptured parliament. He certainly does not need to convince those campaigning for real independence that their cause is lost and their only hope is to beg the newspapers to be reasonable.

The best thing he could do to convince the newspapers that independent regulation is inevitable is to resign and take back some of his own credibility that he has sold to them. He should not expect much press coverage when he does.