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

The route to practical improvements in our newspapers lies with changing the way editors and journalists behave, not in overly worrying about who owns the media.
Mark Pack
10 August 2011

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.

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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.

This piece is part of OurKingdom's debate on media reform in the UK -- a joint initiative with the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Liberal Conspiracy, and Liberal Democrat Voice.

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