Leveson – what backlash?

That cheeky chappy Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette, is again stirring up trouble in the NUJ. This time he has had the nerve to stage a straw poll of readers, asking them if they support the union’s call for “statutory-backed regulation of the press”.

Seriously, though, I view the poll as a constructive move on Ponsford’s part, as we could do with a barometer of opinion on an issue of vital importance to us as individual journalists and our industry as a whole. Ponsford’s straw poll may be methodologically flawed, but then he doesn’t have the means to carry out a scientifically accurate survey. Still, I would suggest that the opposition to statutory underpinning shown by the online poll is more illustrative of NUJ opinion than the hideously complex and in places vague composite motion debated and passed at the recent Delegate Meeting in Newcastle.

At the Delegate Meeting were discussed a number of resolutions relating to press ethics, but the environment of a plenary-centred conference is not the place to consider such complex matters in detail. From the outcome of DM one cannot say that NUJ members are behind the leadership’s proposal for statutory underpinning. This topic is of such importance to us and our industry that it cannot be left to the union executive to decide alone, however representative that management body may be of the wider membership.

I say this as someone who supports and respects our General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, and values her input to the Leveson Inquiry. We fought hard for the NUJ’s contribution to the inquiry, and, taken as a whole, what was said there by our representatives had a positive impact.

However, while sympathetic to the NUJ leadership’s aims, I object strongly to the concept of statutory underpinning, and I have a massive problem with the sophistry employed by NUJ Ethics Council chair Chris Frost in his article posted yesterday on the front page of the union website. The piece provocatively titled “NUJ responds to Leveson backlash” I could accept as a contribution to the debate, in the same way as Stanistreet’s robust rebuttal of red-top twattery, but Frost’s article is set forth as if it were the Voice of the NUJ.

What we have in Frost’s article is rhetoric dressed up as expert opinion. But it does have one saving grace: a reference to Tim Luckhurst’s pamphlet for the “employers-sponsored” Free Speech Network. Luckhurst describes statutory underpinning as a “false compromise”, with state regulation of the press “a constitutional absurdity: parliamentary scrutiny of a body the electorate depends upon to scrutinise parliament”. Frost quotes these words of Luckhurst, but then immediately ignores the logic in outlining his case.

Elsewhere in Frost’s epistle we have a denunciation of editors and proprietors, who we are told are leading a “backlash” against Leveson. We have commercial interests defending their pitch, as one would expect, but politicians from across the spectrum are expressing qualms about any form of statutory press regulation, and civil society groups with an interest and expertise in open society and freedom of speech issues exposing the flaws in the arguments put forward by proponents of press regulation. This is a substantial and broad constituency lined up against statutory press regulation of whatever form.

As for the little detail contained in Frost’s article, let us take the issues of regulatory authority, compulsion and remit. Proponents of statutory underpinning talk of a regulatory body with the legal authority to enforce its code on publishers of a certain size and above. What particular size, and why? You can go for the national red-tops and broadsheets, but what about the local and regional press? Or the town hall Pravdas? And how do you define what constitutes journalistic media that should come under the remit of this new press council? Focus regulatory efforts on mainstream commercial news media, and you risk further damaging skilled journalism, and pushing news reporting and comment into unregulated PR channels and the blogosphere.

A fundamental problem here is that the lines are all the time becoming less and less defined as news and comment media evolve. Attempt to define arbitrary boundaries, including that between commercial and non-profit, and I can see legal challenges and judicial reviews bogging down the system to such an extent that the press council ceases to function effectively. You can be sure that commercial publishers with sufficient resources to fight such battles will do so.

One proposed solution is the so-called Irish model, whereby publications are not compelled to work under the umbrella of a press council, but those choosing to stay outside are discriminated against when it comes to legal cases involving public interest defence. This is unfair, and if such a system is implemented in the UK, I can see it working against investigative journalism. Take, for example, that small but mighty organ and British national institution Private Eye, which leads a precarious existence, and is forever in the courts defending its position.

Is there a free press in Ireland? Yes, but it is muted in comparison with what we have on this side of the Celtic Sea. Models, Irish or otherwise, are useful only when one acknowledges that they are simplistic representations of reality, with limited application in specific situations.

A backlash implies that there is something to lash back against, but in this case we have yet to hear from Leveson. When it comes to the NUJ and its support for statutory regulation, albeit of a ‘lite’ form, we should as union members discuss the issue fully, openly and calmly, and decide whether we endorse the proposal for statutory underpinning that was made by executive decision. We should also refrain from further rhetorical outbursts until Leveson has spoken. That goes for both critics of the NUJ leadership, and those provocatively fanning the flames in defence of the statutory underpinning proposal.

And finally, while the problem of press ethics is a complex one, and not given to simple binary solutions, there is at least one simple aspect to it. That is, journalism is a trade, not a profession, and as such journalists cannot be regulated. Long may this continue.