In the first of a series of interviews with prominent figures in the aftermath of the Lord Justice Leveson's report into press standards, I talked this morning with Stephen Pritchard. Pritchard is serving his second term as president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen. He is the Observer's first readers' editor, a post he has held since 2001. Before taking up the role he was the paper's production editor and managing editor. His speech on Leveson to the World Editors Forum in Kiev earlier this year can be read here.
Editors Weblog: The obvious first question to ask is perhaps the most controversial, namely: do you agree with Lord Justice Leveson when he states that ‘this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’?
Stephen Pritchard: I do agree, yes. He went out of his way to emphasise his support for a free press, and felt both that this is not state control and should not be seen as state control.
He said that it [statute] was an ‘essential’ component to ‘protect the freedom of the press, to reassure the public, and validate the new body’. Do you think all three of those reasons are equally valid?
I’m not entirely certain. I would say that while I respect what he has to say about it not being ‘state control’, if we can achieve what he wishes to achieve in terms of regulation purely by self-regulation, by our own efforts, then that would be preferable to Parliament having to go through the really quite difficult process of drawing up an act which would somehow regulate a body with a very light touch. If between us we can come up with a body that is acceptable both to Parliament and to ourselves then there’s no need for statute.
Cameron’s response in the House of Commons seemed to rely both on principle, but also, as you say, on practice, of drawing up a law that he claimed would be very complicated and might have unintended consequences. Does that argument have the most force?
Well, I’m not sure it has the most force with the public at the moment!
Indeed – 80 per cent of Daily Mail readers would apparently like to see some sort of statute, which seems extraordinary.
Quite. Because they cannot see why we should not be regulated in the same way that television and radio are regulated. We have to ask ourselves why we are holding out against an Ofcom-like body, when in fact Ofcom has, as far as I can see, not had any chilling effect on the investigative practises of the BBC, for instance.
I wanted to talk about Ofcom, actually: that seems to be the thing that has caused most alarm, both in the press and with other groups like Liberty. What are your thoughts about the role of Ofcom in the report?
Well, it would have to be a last resort, if the industry simply couldn’t agree on how to go forward. I would envisage the press reacting very quickly, in the next 48 hours; there are meetings today and tomorrow, between editors, Downing Street and others, to try and reach consensus on this, and to come up with a Leveson-compliant body that doesn’t require statute. An Ofcom option, I would hope, is a long way down that line in the event of us not being able to agree.
It’s a threat, really, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a bit of a threat. I mean, we’ve got to remember that there’s a readership out there that is pretty disgusted with the way that we’ve behaved. It’s unfortunate, but all of us are tarred with the same brush, and we have to find a way to reassure the public that we have their best interests at heart.
OK. Putting aside the issue of statute for the moment, do you agree in principle with the sort of regulatory body that Leveson would like to see implemented? Is there anything you would change in what the judge proposes?
I like a lot of what he says, but I’m a little concerned about having absolutely no representation for the industry on the body. My concern is not because I want to influence it, only that unless you are working every day in the newsroom, you are unlikely to pick up on the nuances of what’s happening in the press, and the way that we regulated ourselves every day. That voice needs sometimes to be heard when we are discussing a decision that has been made at a newspaper. An experienced hand is often needed to answer questions such as ‘how did that newspaper reach that particular point?’ I do worry that a total absence of industry influence is going to lead to some rather strange adjudications.
Does that extend to wanting to see serving editors on the new board?
I’d like to see at least one. I just want one voice from the industry there. It could be a former editor, it doesn’t have to be a serving one; somebody with a lot of experience of the way that newspapers are run. Not there always to defend what we do, of course, but somebody there with a personal account of the industry would be useful.
Does this mean you’ve changed your mind somewhat, in light of the report’s publication? In many of your previous articles you’ve suggested that self-regulation has failed and cannot go on.
That’s true. I remember at our last ONO meeting in Copenhagen we had [Professor] Stephen Barnett out to speak to us, the academic who’s been behind quite a lot of this. He’s an interesting guy who feels that the press really has got to be regulated, to protect itself apart from anything else, in order to end a lot of the practises that have been going on. Now, I have a lot of sympathy with that argument, but there’s been a lot of talk over here in the last few days about the possible danger of ‘creep’ – statutory creep into an organization, putting pressure on how the press operates. Now, we really don’t want that. At the same time, we have to accept that self-regulation has failed. I mean, if it came to it, if we simply could not agree and Parliament had to put something on the statute book, I wouldn’t necessarily be totally uncomfortable with that. There’s been huge hysteria in some branches of the press in the last two days, saying we’re going down the road of Zimbabwe, that we’re going to be another Kazakhstan – that’s nonsense. We have to wise up a bit, and take something on the chin. From my own point of view, from the job that I do, I’m quite heartened by quite a lot of the report, particularly the areas of the report that say: ‘look, whatever body you come up with, it’s going to be very carefully run, and it’s got to agree amongst itself that it will not entertain any complains from the reader that has not already been to that newspaper and has exhausted that newspaper’s complaints procedure.’
Yes, because one of Leveson’s recommendations is for there to be a ‘named senior individual within each title with responsibility for compliance and standards’, which is pretty much your role, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s pretty much what we do. ‘Compliance’ is slightly different, because that is more to do with employment than ombudsmen. But when it comes to standards and ethics, yes it’s what we do. I’ve written this morning to Lord Hunt, who is trying to pull something together to put to Downing Street, saying look: be mindful of this, because if it comes down the track you’re going to need to be well prepared, and my organization can help you in advising newspapers as to how best to go about this. So I hope to get something out of this, that the profile of the Organization of News Ombudsmen will be raised in this country. We’ve been doing this for about 50 years already, so we do actually know how these things work, and how it can best work to the advantage not only of the reader, but also the management of the newspaper.
I’d like to talk a little bit more about some of the other things that Leveson says, particularly on the relationship between the press and politicians. Do you think his prescription of ‘more transparency’ to solve the problem of it being ‘too close’ a relationship is enough?
No, I don’t think it is really. But at the same time I don’t think we want too much steering in that direction. Journalism is a very subtle business, and it’s not about making a little note about every meeting you’ve had with the Under-Secretary of State for Plumbing. It’s much more to do with conversational nuance. Whilst I’m all for accountability and transparency, we have to recognise that stories don’t break because people make notes about them in notebooks, and keep a record of them which is readily available for everybody. It’s much more subtle, and politics works in exactly the same way. The press and politicians will always have a close relationship, and if they don’t, then frankly we’re not doing our job.
With that in mind, Harold Evans wrote a piece in the Guardian the other day saying that the question of media ownership was the one thing Leveson rather ducked out of addressing – does that argument stand?
It absolutely does, yes. But the poor man [Leveson] could have written 4,000 pages, let alone 2,000 pages, on the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’. Ownership is part of that, of course it is. But at the moment we have to have a mind to what newspapers in this country and indeed all over Europe are going through: a fall in circulation, vastly reduced revenues, and all the rest of it. So anybody who owns a newspaper is not going to be making an enormous amount of money at the moment.
Finally then: is it your conclusion that the Prime Minister is essentially right to say that statute is not really an option, and that the press ought to have another go?
I think it is fair to say that the press has been cattle-prodded into getting around the table and coming up with something that is going to fine them up to £1 million, that going to be very sensitive, that will demand enlarged corrections: all the things which the PCC has not really been able to do.
And are you confident that it’s going to work?
No! I mean to say – I don’t know. One of the problems for you is that you’re talking to me in a very fast-paced, fast-changing landscape. There are meetings today and meetings tomorrow. We don’t know what’s going to come out of them, but [Lord] Hunt is determined to get something in front of Parliament, to which Parliament will say: ‘well, that seems OK to us; we don’t need to legislate’. You ask whether I think Cameron was right: I thought he was precipitous. He’d only had the report in front of him for a few hours.
You could say the same about Ed Miliband, I suppose, in accepting it.
You could. But I worry that he [Cameron] said that because of his Tory friends, and because of his very close links to the right-wing press. There are all sorts of reasons why he would say that. We are, perhaps, over-scared of ‘statutory underpinning’. It may have some merits in that it might for the first time enshrine freedom of the press in law.
A sort of U.S. style First Amendment?
Yes, and there’s a lot to be said for that. An Act would push it all together. But nevertheless, if the industry as a whole can come up with a body with real teeth –
Then that is definitely preferable?
That has to be preferable, yes.
And your suspicion is that they will, or they won’t?
They’re going to have a damn good try!
Disclaimer: WAN-IFRA is a supporter of the Free Speech Network (http://freespeechnetwork.wordpress.com/).