Moses and the Culture Secretary

It has been a strange week for those of us who took a keen interest in press regulation as a result of the Leveson Inquiry.

On Tuesday evening, Sir Alan Moses, chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, gave the inaugural lecture named in honour of that body, in which he spoke scathingly of those who challenge the effectiveness of his organisation, witheringly of the alternative press regulator and irreverently of a new organisation which has been mandated by Royal Charter to give an official seal of approval to those press regulators which, unlike his own, comply with a set of standards mapped-out by Lord Justice Leveson.

The press were arguing that there wasn’t anything newsworthy in the story they were now all publishing

By Wednesday morning, supporters of IPSO were popping-up on TV and radio news programmes, asking us to believe that IPSO’s regulatory regime had been the catalyst for self-restraint amongst print editors. The trigger for this claim was not the Moses lecture, but the revelation on BBC’s Newsnight that the print media had failed to publish a story about an embarrassment in the love life of Cabinet Minister, John Whittingdale.

So, was Leveson wrong after all? Has the press – with IPSO’s help – proved themselves more than able to mend their ways without the steps that Lord Justice Leveson recommended?

In a word, no. We have been treated to bellyful of cant from news publishers and those – directly or indirectly – on their payroll.

The central tenet of Sir Alan Moses’s lecture was that the only way one can impose and enforce obligations on the press is through a legislated licensing system, “by saying you must not publish save under licence.” Well, Moses, that’s a load of bulrush.

Statutory regulation exists in many forms without imposing a licensing regime. Telecommunications companies haven’t needed a licence since 2003, but are still regulated by Ofcom. Employers don’t require a licence to take on staff, but they must comply with a mass of employment regulation. And there are food regulations aplenty, but no one needs a licence to cook.

Building on his false premise, Sir Alan developed the argument that the only way to introduce press regulation was if the publishers “had [been] persuaded to do so.” This led him to conclude that press regulation has to be a matter of choice for publishers – a choice as to those obligations to which they would submit and those which they would reject. “In reality,” he said, “it was for the press to say how far they were prepared to go.”

And because the press did exactly that – decide how far they would go and how little that would be – Sir Alan has convinced himself that the press is “doing precisely what [Leveson] wanted.”

Of course, it is no such thing. The independent Media Standards Trust carried out a thorough analysis of IPSO and found that:

“instead of delivering ‘all the key elements Lord Justice Leveson called for in his report’, as … IPSO has claimed, IPSO satisfies only 12 of the 38 Leveson <a href=”” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>recommendations</a> that are needed for a press self-regulator to be independent and effective”. [hyperlink added]

Since that statement was made, IPSO has made some changes, but not enough to make more than a dent in the shortfall between their rules and Leveson’s recommendation.

Leveson had been clever enough to anticipate the press’s unwillingness. He had recommended legal cost incentives to be imposed on publishers who do not subscribe to a regulator which met the standards he set out – incentives which the press have been most anxious to see dispensed with and which Sir Alan simply ignored.

So, if Sir Alan Moses failed to convince with his argument, what about the editors and former editors who popped-up the next morning to praise the press for their restraint in not disclosing John Whittingdale’s embarrassing liaison before he was appointed to the Cabinet and put in charge of the final steps required to implement the post-Leveson settlement?

Their argument was utterly undermined within hours when the papers did the exact opposite and reported the embarrassing details. Several, such as the Daily Mirror, managed to do so twice: once as news relating to the embarrassing story and a second time under the guise of a story that the MP was to face a “sleaze probe”. Others in the press made the topic the subject of a leading article in addition to a news story, attempting to argue that there wasn’t actually anything newsworthy in the story they were now all publishing.

The leading campaigners against press intrusion, Hacked Off, found themselves walking a tightrope. Intrusion into an MP’s private life is no part of their agenda, but they have been questioning why Whittingdale hasn’t carried out a crucial duty relating to press regulation. As Culture Secretary, it fell to him, last November, to issue the necessary “commencement orders” to bring into force the final link in the post-Leveson legislation – the very cost incentives which were central to the whole Leveson settlement. But Whittingdale didn’t do his job. He announced last October that he was “not convinced” of the need to implement the legislation enacted by parliament (with cross-party support). He was unilaterally reversing a decision of Parliament. Hacked Off were not happy.

If, at the time of Whittingdale’s decision, the press were holding back on an embarrassing story, he had an obvious conflict of interest – or, at the very least, the perception of one. Before the story broke nationally, Hacked Off questioned whether his position had been compromised. In doing so, they revealed no details of the embarrassing facts, but they could be criticised for giving readers sufficient information to enable the facts to be found online.

When Newsnight took the story to the nation, Hacked Off was asked whether Whittingdale’s U-turn on policy should be called into doubt. They were not slow to say that it should. It was all too easy for opponents of the Leveson proposals to spin this as Hacked Off criticising the print media for failing to publish an intrusive story about Whittingdale, even though that wasn’t actually Hacked Off’s message.

Suddenly, it was hard to find a piece about Hacked Off that wasn’t accusing them of hypocrisy and describing the Whittingdale story as a non-story … although that didn’t stop the press from using the attack on Hacked Off as an excuse to recite the Whittingdale story yet again.

The need for press regulation worthy of the name has never been more clear.

[This article was republished at Inforrm on 17 April 2016.]