John McLellan: Newspapers clean up their act

The phone hacking scandal forced changes in the industry. Picture: Cate Gillon
The phone hacking scandal forced changes in the industry. Picture: Cate Gillon
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Last week Edinburgh was host to a small but very significant event in the history of the British Press; the first public engagement for the first chair of the new Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Sir Alan Moses only retired from his position as an appeal court judge the previous Friday and last Monday he was at Napier University for a discussion about how newspapers should be regulated in the future.

As you might expect from one of Britain’s most senior judges, Sir Alan gave ample evidence that he is a man with an independent mind and anyone who thinks that IPSO under him is there simply to protect the interests of newspapers will be very much mistaken.

The establishment of IPSO followed the publication of Lord Leveson’s report into the practices of the British Press at the end of 2012 following the long-running inquiry.

Of the many recommendations made by Lord Leveson, two practical things stood out; one was that whatever system followed it should be funded by the Press and the other was that the industry should get on with the job of setting it up.

It has taken time to ensure a strong, robust system is in place and it should be operational by September. Inevitably, there will be those who say that as newspapers companies are paying, then they will call the tune, but that ignores the facts that no-one is seriously arguing anyone else should foot the bill and that IPSO’s board and complaints committee will have a majority of non-industry figures. While the Press Complaints Commission undeniably made mistakes and became discredited as a result of the phone hacking scandal, the huge amount of good work it did, and still does, on the public behalf became forgotten. I speak as a former Press Complaints Commissioner and with its in-built majority of lay people, its decisions were not biased in favour of publishers. Far from it.

Last week’s Napier event heard from one lady whose family had complained to the PCC about the way a newspaper had reported a family tragedy. While she was still angered by the way the story was handled and by the length of time it took to reach a decision, the fact remained that the PCC upheld the complaint and the paper was forced to publish the criticism.

Even with the toughest set of rules imaginable, there can never be any guarantee they will not be broken but the mark of a good regulator is that it is pro-active, the sanctions for breaking the rules are clear and the response is as fast as possible without denying either side a fair chance to make their case. Having been found guilty, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson will be sentenced later this week for his part in phone hacking and so too will his former colleagues who previously pleaded guilty.

It will be a reminder that newspapers are not beyond the law and journalists who transgress face the same punishments as any other person.

Self-regulation adds another layer beyond the law and the editors’ code of conduct provides a strong moral basis for how British journalists should operate. Like anything it is open to interpretation, but it embodies a respect for individuals and the right for ordinary people to be treated with decency and consideration.

The newspaper industry now has a chance to reaffirm its place as a public guardian. The rules will be tested and, yes, sometimes broken; a free press will continue to annoy and upset some people but inform and entertain millions of others. That is as it should be in a genuinely free society.

• John McLellan is Director of the Scottish Newspaper Society