What is to be done about the Richard Desmond problem?

02 Nov 2011  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

Raymond Snoddy says the game has just begun - it's up to everyone in the newspaper and magazine industries to try to design the best possible mixture of carrots and sticks to ensure that self-regulation of the press survives...

What is to be done about the Richard Desmond problem? Problem? Problem singular you ask incredulously.

Let's concentrate on the one Richard Desmond problem that could have serious implications for free speech and the freedom of the press in this country - his decision to unilaterally pull out of the Press Complaints Commission earlier this year.

The fact that anyone can feel free to remove themselves from the PCC is starting to look like a potential deal-breaker for the survival of self-regulation, as Lord Leveson and his helpers start to limber up to take formal evidence later this month.

The rapidly clarifying conundrum goes like this. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has declared himself against statutory regulation of the press. Lord Chief Justice Judge has come out in a similar vein.

So the issue therefore turns into how self-regulation can be made to work more effectively. But how can it possibly be made to work if it is, in effect, voluntary self-regulation and the Richard Desmonds of this world - though thankfully there is no-one else like him - can just take themselves off in a huff.

If you compel publications to take part by statute you enter a circular argument from which there is no escape.

Richard Desmond made it clear in an interview with The Guardian this week that the main reason for staying away from the PCC was a hatred of Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. "I'm not sitting there with Dacre," said Desmond in a state of renewed anger at remarks the Daily Mail editor made at a recent Leveson seminar.

Dacre expressed surprise that someone who had "made his money from porn" had been deemed a fit and proper person to own a newspaper.

Desmond's editorial director Paul Ashford put the reasons for withdrawal from the PCC slightly more diplomatically at a "speed debating" session on the future of regulation at City University yesterday.

As far as Northern and Shell - the Desmond parent company - are concerned they were being regulated by a private gentleman's club that they didn't feel part of.

One of Desmond's major reasons for pulling out, Ashford continued, was the fact that the PCC singled out his company for criticism over the Madeline McCann coverage in the Daily Express and the Daily Star.

It hardly seems surprising that the Express and Star titles should be criticised for their McCann coverage given that they had to pay £550,000 in libel damages to the McCanns for numerous libels across as many as 100 articles.

At various times in The Guardian interview, the eccentric Desmond said he continued to refuse to rejoin the PCC -  then hinted that he might reconsider before declaring that he was happy to accept statutory regulation and fines. There could be no clearer exposition of the problem.

How do you cope with such a problem? The answer has to be through a series of incentives and penalties. Most will see the advantages for the good of the newspaper industry of paying their fees to the PCC but for those who do not there has to be penalty to pay.

Many people are playing around with the idea of "a kite mark", which signifies properly regulated media and which could be carried prominently in publications.

The kite mark concept could be strengthened beyond mere PCC membership by also signing up to signs of best practice - such as reader's editors and regular corrections and clarifications columns.

Desmond is, however, unlikely to be brought to heel by the lack of a kite mark and tax credits for PCC members might be more his cup of tea.

David Elstein, a member of the British Screen Advisory Council, suggested yesterday that differential rates of VAT on newspapers and newsprint to penalise those who refuse to accept self-regulation might do the trick.

It is not clear under EU rules whether such a thing would be legally possible - though it is certainly worth exploring. Another possibility would be to hit mavericks where it hurts - through their advertising revenue.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) brings together the publishing and advertising industries. It is in effect a self-regulation body to ensure the credibility of claimed circulations. What if membership was to be restricted to publications that accepted self-regulation of editorial standards?

100% membership would soon be guaranteed because publishers would not want to see uncertainly over circulation numbers affecting advertising yield.

But the game has just begun - it's up to everyone in the newspaper and magazine industries to try to design the best possible mixture of carrots and sticks to ensure that self-regulation of the press survives.

Lord Grade, who joined the PCC in April, warned yesterday against "an orgy of regulatory self-flagellation" in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

Rather like the phoneline scandals that hit broadcasting, once the matter is exposed there is a major self-correction. No-one, Lord Grade argued, will dream of getting involved in phone-hacking in future to face a certain jail sentence.

"The PCC doesn't do it job well. It does it brilliantly. I see the (internal) papers every week," said the former chairman of the BBC.

At the "speed debating" event, Lara Fielden launched her joint City- Reuters institute study - Regulating for Trust in Journalism: Standards Regulation in the age of blended media. Fielden argues that new models of regulation are needed for the multi-media age with three tiers of regulation.

Tier 1 would require comprehensive regulation for all "public" media that benefits directly or indirectly from public investment. Tier 2 would incentivise voluntary ethical standards as a selling point for "private" media while Tier 3 would enforce minimum statutory requirements for on demand TV and video.

It was pointed out, however, that the age of blended media had not yet arrived with 84% of viewing in the UK still going to linear live TV.

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