Rupert Murdoch, Phone Hacking and Press Regulation

Will Cookson has an interesting post on media regulation, where he argues against our current media ownership rules. He says;.

We need to look at the ownership rules of the media for our country. They are not like other goods and services. They can strike at the root of our democracy. If someone like Rupert Murdoch can summon senior politicians at short notice to the other side of the world because of his power then that is bad for democracy.

The media should only be allowed to be owned by UK citizens resident in this country. Political parties are no longer allowed to receive gifts from overseas residents and the same should apply to the media ownership.

Not that much for me to disagree with there, though drafting legislation in such a way that it cannot be challenged (especially under EU competition law) will be difficult. Plus all our main political parties and the City do not think that nationality of ownership is anything that we should worry about. Convincing them otherwise without voting for a UKIP or a Socialist Workers Party government at the next election will be difficult.

Where I tend to disagree with Will  is on his proposals for regulation, which I think have implications around freedom of the press, and freedom of speech in general. He says;

We must have an external independent ombudsman for the media whatever the media throw at the politicians (and be prepared for some very nasty stories about politicians with innuendo and smears in the early autumn).

Newspapers have always been the tools and playthings of the rich and powerful. Owners in the past like Lord Beaverbrook and the Rothermeres  (owners of the Daily Mail) have always used their publications to persuade, bribe (by granting or withholding support) and if necessary bully governments into doing their bidding. Whether Rupert Murdoch has a larger and more insidious influence is a moot point

I am sure that journalists on the past bought information and were on far too friendly terms with various police officers. They didn’t hack mobile phones (they didn’t exist), but probably had ways of tapping landlines if they thought that the story would be worth the risk. But the sins of the past do not excuse the sins of the present day.

Even phone hacking gets a bit tricky. I don’t want my mobile hacked. I don’t want Milly Dowler’s parents’ phones hacked. Neither do I want the phones and emails of relatives of service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan hacked. But, say a newspaper has very tenuous evidence that a senior politician is accepting bribes to influence the placing of government contracts , would I worry if the newspaper hacked his or her phone as part of their investigation?

The hard question is what to do about it. It is without doubt that what happened at the News of the World was beyond the competency of the Press Complaints Commission as it is presently set up. The PCC does valuable arbitration and conciliation work and it needs to carry on doing it, but without increased powers it should drop the pretence that it is a regulator.

A truly effective regulator has to have the powers to stop a story being published in the first place. Our ridiculous libel laws (“super-injunctions”) are often used by celebrities to just that end. The publishing of a story , or putting a celebrity adulterer’s name to a twitter #hashtag. puts the information into the public domain. Taking it back is impossible. The regulator can do nothing other than deal with the complaints.

The idea of a state appointed “independent” press regulator worries me. Would a state appointed regulator have allowed the Daily Telegraph break the story of the MP’s expenses scandal? MP’s, and probably not just the guilty parties, would have complained to the regulator and asked for the suspension of the story. The Telegraph bought the information. The information, was probably stolen. I think that an independent regulator would have prevented the Telegraph publishing the story.

How far will the press regulators powers go? Will every story in every newspaper need submitting to him or her before publication? If not, what will be criteria that triggers the need for submission? If a newspaper (or other outlet like say a blog) publishes an unsuitable story what powers will the regulator have to correct them? Will the regulators powers only apply to newspapers, or will they extend to include all publications? If the regulators powers cover all publications, will I have to send my blog posts, will they come back with the spelling and grammar corrected and will the regulator reading my blog posts show up in my statistics? Do we want to regulate unsuitable stories or just unsuitable methods of journalism?
We must have these, and probably more questions satisfactorily before we head down this path.

I think that keeping press regulation voluntary, with the PCC having increased powers to demand retractions and insist on the positioning of the retractions within the newspaper, and possibly even suspending a publication in the worst cases might work. If, as is currently the case with the Express group newspapers, they refuse to be bound by the PCC rulings then OFCOM will take over their regulation. OFCOM has the powers to insist that the owners of a non compliant company sell their stakes in it (at a loss if necessary).

Oh, and applying the law, not just to “rogue” reporters, but extending culpability to those who employ them.The possibility of the Rupert and James Murdoch, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade, spending some time behind bars would really get the attention of the owners and editors of newspapers. I understand that the instances of phone hacking have dropped to round about zero since Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman were jailed.
I am also sure that it is against the law for police officers to pass confidential information to third parties, with or without money changing hands. If the law needs clarifying then clarify it, but again applying the law will be more effective.

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