By David Hencke | 14 December 2011
Newspapers and magazines will have to produce an annual report of their standards of journalism under plans for a new regulatory body.
The move is part of sweeping changes to the regulation of the Press to be proposed by Lord Hunt, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) since October.
Hunt wants the new regulator’s industry code of practice to be removed from the oversight of newspaper editors. At the PCC, the code is kept under review by a special committee of editors, which is chaired by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail and editor-in-chief at Associated Newspapers, which also publishes the Mail on Sunday.
“I am promoting it is as a fresh start from a new body”
– Lord Hunt, chairman, Press Complaints Commission
The new body would have a commission similar to the PCC, which would oversee the code of practice as well as adjudicate on complaints. The current commission has 17 members: 10, including the chairman, are “public members” with no connection to the newspaper or magazine industry, and the remaining seven are serving editors.
Hunt is also concerned that it has editors, but no investigative journalists. He is considering whether the PCC should have a panel of experts – from investigative journalists to lawyers – who would examine complaints and report to the commission.
The PCC has always argued that the majority of “public members” ensures that it is independent of the Press. Hunt also wants to extend the PCC’s remit to cover publications on the internet and the blogosphere.
The audit is just one change in the way that newspapers would have to be accountable to a proposed new regulatory body. It would handle complaints as well as being responsible for a new independently vetted standards system.
Hunt told Exaro that publications would have to introduce new structures to deal with complaints and in setting and vetting journalistic standards. Those that fail to do so could face a visit from experts employed by the new regulatory body to investigate what had gone wrong.
He said: “I sense now that there is a wish to see a proper standards authority that can precede any need for complaint [to the regulator] by making it unnecessary to complain, provided the standards are followed.
“I would make the chief executive or the senior management responsible for the newspaper or magazine. They would be responsible for the internal standards of that organisation and if the standards slipped the buck would stop with them.
“I have just taken the concept of an independent readers’ editor and translated it into a whole regulatory structure and I think that this a clear way forward. We must accept self-regulation: if they want self-regulation, they must accept self-regulation.
“If it fails, the most important thing is to have someone in the organisation who is responsible and looking to put it right, and is responsible for making sure that there is never is a failure.
“In some organisations, it could be the chief executive who says that the buck stops here. In a much larger organisation, he may have compliance officers and standards officials who are responsible that standards are kept, but still embrace the independence and freedom of the editor. Editorial freedom is paramount.”
Officials at the regulator would be able to turn to a nominated individual at each publisher “at the end of each year for an annual audit so they can examine and be satisfied that there is an acceptance of the standards, and that they are being followed.”
He continued: “If there is ever a suspicion that there has been slippage, then [the officials] should be given power under contract at the highest level to send in an expert to examine where they believe there has been slippage.”
“At the very top is a product of a commercial agreement that has to be signed by every publishing house.”
“The overall management board would be small, with an independent majority and an independent chairman appointed through a proper appointments commission, and in that way it will be authentic, reliable and trusted: not only by the Press themselves, but by the public – and by Parliament.”
“I think that the PCC suffered by people expecting it to do things it could not do. So, we are expecting this new body to preserve what is best about the old system, namely its fast, free and fair handling of complaints.”
“I am promoting it is as a fresh start from a new body.”
“I believe in independent self-regulation, which means, of course, it is regulation by the Press, of the Press, for the Press, but also in the interests of the public, and to achieve respect and re-establish the confidence of the public in our Press and magazine industry. So, that is the purpose of it all.”