The flaws in Ed Miliband’s media policy are no cause for rejoicing

It isn’t often that the members of one party should be worried about a proposed policy from a rival party’s leader collapsing under examination. However, David Elstein’s demolition of Ed Miliband’s proposal to limit ownership of newspapers by circulation should not provide more than a passing smile to Liberal Democrats, for it highlights the difficult of coming up with any meaningful change in the rules over newspaper ownership.

As David Elstein puts it:

Ed Miliband has proposed a 20% limit on ownership of national newspapers, measured by circulation. As the Sun’s circulation is more than 20% of all national newspaper sales, that would require News International to close The Times and either sell the Sunday Times or reposition it as a non-national newspaper (by ceasing to publish in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, where would-be readers would have to subscribe digitally). Even then the Sun’s circulation would need to be forced down, perhaps by restricting access to newsprint. In all likelihood any such measure would result in the combined circulation of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday rising above 20%, so requiring similar measures to be targeted at them.

Banning a newspaper from appearing in parts of the UK? Making it illegal for a newspaper group to buy ‘too much’ paper? There are just too few newspaper titles with a mass audience for restriction on ownership by circulation to be practical.

That’s why I think the debates this week about media ownership are largely looking for the wrong sort of solution, at least as far as newspapers are concerned. The route to practical improvements in our newspapers lies with changing the way editors and journalists behave, not in overly worrying about ultimate ownership.

The immediate and obvious is substantive and meaningful reform of the system of self-regulation. Part of the problem has been the way the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) sees itself as an arbiter of individual cases rather than a regulator of the industry and part of the problem has been the gaps in the code of conduct it enforces.

However fixing those issues on its own is very unlikely to be enough.

There needs to be a much greater sense of individual, personal responsibility by journalists and editors for how they behave. This is best illustrated by the classic doorstepping exercise trawling for a story that many newspapers carry out. That sort of exercise can be justified – it is, after all, how the Mail unearthed the David Abrahams Labour donations scandal, by doorstepping all the supposed Labour Party donors in turn until it discovered some that were not. That is the sort of investigative journalism we should not merely tolerate but welcome.

But – and it is a big but – I also know of several people who have been caused huge personal distress by journalists on similar fishing trips appearing on their doorsteps and then behaving in a rude and intrusive manner, trying to tease out information by scaring those they are talking to. The problem is that all the pressure is on the journalist to come back with a story. If they don’t, they – and possibly their boss – can get criticism for failing to produce a story yet taking up time and money on a wild goose chase. Yet if the journalist oversteps the mark and leaves someone in tears? There is no comeback. The pressure is all one way and so we should not be surprised by the result.

That sense of personal immunity can be changed. Rulings by whatever succeeds the current PCC could name the responsible journalists and editorial staff and hold them, rather than simply their title, to account for example.

Some examples of journalists misbehaving have, and will continue to be, unearthed or publicised by ‘the public’, especially with the increasing voice available to many people via social media. However, as we have seen with the most serious of recent allegations, it is often only when serious investigative resources are deployed that wrongdoing is discovered or rumours turned into facts. There is clearly a role for the police in this, but the need for a free press means we should not over-rely on police crawling over media outlets; there needs to be a different source of vigorous and effective investigation that does not come with the same risks of to a free press from the abuse of state power.

The answer is a simple, but almost always unused, one. There is a whole profession skilled at investigative work: investigative journalists. At the moment, with the rare and striking exception of phone hacking, journalists almost always shy away from stories about each other. The ‘dog eat dog’ style story is treated as something to avoid.

That cosy stand-off may suit the short-term interests of journalists, but it fails the interests of the public, of our society and indeed of healthy journalism too.

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2 Comments

  • I agree that this is a bigger problem than just newspaper ownership but Ed M’s position on this isn’t actually as bad as you say. Plurality is a piece of the puzzle and 20% seems a reasonable threshold but you need a bit of leeway. For instance, if a newspaper with an over 20% share is owned then perhaps the rule could be “one newspaper or a 20% share of the newspaper market, whichever is greater” perhaps with some further break-up rules for if a newspaper individually consists of 40% of the market, as a 40% share for one publication would be more harmful than the picture you describe. There should probably also be some leeway for small publications owned by companies with large publications – an 18% share newspaper and a 3% share newspaper probably should not warrant either being sold, whereas two 18% share newspapers should.

    I’m not too sure about journalists investigating journalists though, I think that it’s too much in their own interests to not be investigated themselves and I doubt that they would be bold enough for the solution to be viable.

  • Why are people even still talking about the PCC? Self regulation of the press works about as well as self regulation of looters. We elect politicians to create laws, so they should create an appropriate privacy law rather than just leaving it to the Judges. Then the executive should hold the Police to account when it comes to enforcing the rule of law. It really is that simple.

    The real problems are with the corrupt triangular love in that is the media, police and parliament. Elected politicians often say they want to put their point across. Why should be permitted to receive financial inducements from the media for this, declared or otherwise?

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