Chinese Journalists Put Britain’s Press Regulation to the Test

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Aidan White

Next month a group of Chinese press leaders are coming to London to talk press ethics and self-regulation at the invitation of the Ethical Journalism Network.

China has it in mind to introduce a code of ethics for Chinese journalists as well as a national media council to monitor the press and to act as a complaints handling system.

But if the delegation from the All China Journalists Association, a governmental organisation set up to manage media affairs, is under the impression that Britain provides a model of press regulation they are in for a shock.

The state of press regulation in London is in chaos and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

After almost three years of a rumbling press scandal, a detailed public inquiry, and a number of high-profile court cases that have seen journalists sent to jail, the government last month finally approved a new system of regulating the press. Campaigners for press reform says it’s long overdue.

Parliament, under an all-party agreement, is to establish an independent recognition panel that will grant new press regulators formal status under a Royal Charter that promises legal advantages to newspapers that sign up.

Politicians says the new system makes it easier for people who feel they have been wronged by the press to have their complaints heard, and a new industry regulator recognised under the system will be able to levy fines of up to 1 million pounds.

But it’s a system that newspapers say is draconian and threatens freedom of the press. Most newspapers have agreed to set up their own body – the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – which will not sign up to the new scheme. They say they will explore legal channels to sabotage the new system and in the meantime will ignore it to try to render it ineffective.

What the Chinese will make of this standoff is not clear, but they will have other options to consider, including the actions of some major newspapers that broken ranks over how to regulate Britain’s unruly press sector.

Three key players – The Guardian, Financial Times and the Independent, which includes London’s major newspaper the Evening Standard, have refused to join IPSO. They plan to establish their own review systems to strengthen existing internal forms of self-regulation.

But those who have decided to go it alone are already running into troubled waters. The Guardian, for instance has created its own “independent panel” with the power to “recommend a range of remedies, including corrections, alteration or removal of content, deletion, apologies and/or providing a right of reply”.

But as one media observer has pointed out, unlike IPSO, the Guardian’s review panel does not appear to have the power to launch its own investigations and levy fines. “It seems that The Guardian’s solution to its problems with IPSO, in the short-term, is to set up its own complaints handling system which is even less independent and less powerful,” he says.

As part of their investigation the Chinese visitors will talk to The Guardian to get their side of the story.

They will also talk with the leaders of IMPRESS, a second press body, which is currently finalising its Board structure and which should be up and running early next year.

IMPRESS will be more independent from the journalism industry and will be attractive to many new players across the digitally-driven and expanding journalism landscape. (I should point out here, that I have an interest: I have been advising IMPRESS on the membership of their new Board.)

But whether IMPRESS is an acceptable alternative to IPSO for The Guardian and other industry refuseniks is an open question. If IMPRESS decides at some future date to seek official recognition under the government’s Royal Charter it will infuriate pretty much all of the national press, including The Guardian whose editor is firmly opposed to any form of statutory underpinning. Although politicians argue that their new system is not about interference in the press and it stops short of statutory press regulation, it is a form of self-regulation rejected by the major newspapers on all sides.

Nevertheless, IMPRESS will point to its distinctive character as an independent non-industry body and will also trumpet its planned arbitration service to resolve media law disputes involving journalists. Such a service offering affordable access to justice was one of Brian Leveson’s central recommendations for press regulators in his November 2012 report into phone hacking and press abuse.

This provides a much-needed alternative to adversarial media law litigation and removes the problem of astronomical legal costs which are often used by bullying litigants to block investigative journalism.

Meanwhile, we can expect the debate about press regulation to drop off the political agenda in the coming months. Although UK political leaders say they want to stamp out a scandal-hungry culture in parts of journalism, none of them will raise the issue in the run-up to the general election due in May next year.

The Chinese visitors, who are planning to meet with IPSO and IMPRESS leaders as well as press reform groups such as Hacked Off, may find all of this too complex and controversial. If they are looking for an easier option, they may be encouraged by the model offered by Peter Feeny, the Ombudsman at the Irish Press Council, who is travelling from Dublin to meet with them.

He will, I’m sure, talk up the merits of Ireland’s light touch statutory regulation which is broadly supported without much argument or rancour by the country’s journalists, press industry, legislators and, more to the point, by the public at large.


Photo credit: CC Flickr Neil Howard

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