Media Regulation: Case for a Press Ombudsman

I resume this post on press regulation warily [the first part is here]. After all, no less an authority than the editor of the Daily Mirror informed Lord Leveson’s enquiry that bloggers are cowboys. Perhaps, instead of sharing ideas we considered on the design of a future regulator at the Democratic Society roundtable before Christmas, I should wait for the marshals of the tabloid press to produce thoughtful front-page spreads on the subject. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, so with six shooter loaded, spurs jangling, and chaps swaying in the breeze, I mosey on into the It’s Not O.K. Corral.

Leveson is considering a range of matters, from criminal abuses to the disputed terrain of privacy. But press criminality should properly be the concern of a hitherto lax police force. The excessive dominance of certain media players could be tackled by considering market share, the province of an existing regulator, the Competition Commission. Recent witnesses have warned against new statutory restrictions. So unless Leveson recommends a new privacy law, which none of the pre-Christmas panel advocated, what would be left for a new regulator to regulate?

Plenty, in my view.

Katie Price gets doorstepped by photographers. Difficult to get excited by this if no law is broken: her wealth and fame depend on a cultivated symbiosis with the media. But if the same treatment is meted out to a “private” individual, it looks different. And imagine that individual was the subject of stories hinting, on mere supposition, they were complicit in a crime.

A political party sees the worst constructions put upon its motives by a hostile newspaper. Provided the coverage isn’t libellous, tough. Same for big businesses, corporations, football teams. They are big and ugly enough to take it. But the same treatment to a local charity or a corner shop?

No one was specifically libelled by The Sun’s Hillsborough coverage on 19th April 1989. But an entire community felt besmirched. But how would redress be pursued? A legal action: City of Liverpool versus News International?

In many areas of life, public service, for example, there are bodies which people individually or collectively can approach and seek redress outside the courts. Complainants may lack resources to pursue legal action. They may not actually want damages, but simply an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and an apology, or they may have been treated unfairly but within the letter of the law. One can easily imagine something like this for complaints against the print media: a body hearing claims from members of the public that they had been unfairly pursued or traduced by a newspaper.

Would it be a regulator? Many myths abound about regulators. Time for a few truths.

Regulation suggests standards, rules and procedures, inspection, licensing or permits. Regulation suggests all these things. But regulators rarely do them all. Some regulators issue licences. Many have competence to inspect categories of business, but do not licence or control market entry. Economic regulators may not inspect individual businesses at all, but uphold market standards – competition, fair pricing – to protect consumers. Some regulators develop laws. Others police laws set elsewhere. Whenever a regulator is established, it is almost always an innovation of range, scope and competence. It is possible to create proportionate, risk-based and non-invasive regulators that leave most businesses alone and focus relentlessly on wrongdoers. And it is possible to create overbearing, intrusive, meddlesome regulators that fail to spot wrongdoings because they cannot see the wood for the trees.

Further, it is simplistic to equate regulation with state control. Plenty of regulators are statutory and funded from general taxation. But independence from ministerial control is often a defining characteristic.

One group of independent, publicly funded, quasi-regulatory bodies are the various Ombudsmen. They do not inspect, but respond to complaints. Funded by government, they are not subject to political control. Indeed, the Local Government Ombudsman regularly finds against politicians and administrations of all political shades.

A publicly funded Press Ombudsman could develop and promulgate standards and then receive complaints.

This sounds a bit like the Press Complaints Commission. However, it would not suffer that body’s “producer capture”, which Leveson clearly sees as a major problem. Neither would it be the repressive thought police of news editor imagining. Established by statute, it could be subject to guaranteed long-term funding and non-departmental (ie not overseen by a minister). Senior officials could be Crown appointments, but not selected by the Prime Minister, chosen instead by an independent recruitment panel drawn from a range of stakeholders, including the public. And the Ombudsman could avoid becoming a rich celebrity’s privacy shield by concerning itself with the comparative “vulnerability” of claimants.

Leveson sniped at the PCC in recent exchanges, describing it as a mere complaints handler. Our putative Ombudsman would have to be more than that to satisfy him. It would need real teeth.

The Local Government Ombudsman specialises in restorative justice. This approach might have force with print media. Being required to print full front page apologies could cause editors to interest themselves in the factuality of their coverage. But so would the occasional imposition of very steep fines.

A Press Ombudsman would be mostly silent. It wouldn’t inspect. It wouldn’t licence. It wouldn’t meddle. Its scope would be narrow. But it would be credible, independent and carry a medium-sized stick.

This option, which we discussed at the December session, seems to me a proportionate and constructive step. It fills a perceived gap in the scheme of redress, but does not risk state control or censorship. It builds on existing arrangements, but gives them backbone.

A softly spoken but respected sheriff in the Wild West of news.