Charles Wheeler Lecture
University of Westminster, 13 June 2013
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I’m absolutely delighted and honoured to be here. And congratulations to Robin Lustig, a very worthy winner of this year’s Charles Wheeler award.
Thank you very much for inviting me to give this lecture, and to give it here at the University of Westminster – what a fantastic building. And I’m delighted to be introduced by Steve Barnett who has toiled so long, and with such wisdom, on the question of media reform. It’s such a pleasure to work with you Steve – you always have wise words to take people forward.
And it’s an honour to be here with Lady Wheeler.
The Charles Wheeler lecture is an important event in the media calendar.
And I can remember as if it were yesterday, Charles Wheeler's broadcasts down the decades. Just the sight of his furrowed brow and the beady intelligence of his eyes conjured up authority, honesty, depth and experience. He continued to broadcast right up into his 80s. And I look forward to the day when women are able to continue to broadcast beyond their 50th birthday.
The importance of journalism
He was respected by all for all the best qualities in journalism.
No-one here will be in any doubt about the importance of journalism:
• the medium for debate without which our democracy couldn't function
• holding power to account
• informing and entertaining, and
• telling us about ourselves and the world in which we live.
Often great journalism requires:
• great courage
• great tenacity and commitment.
The Leveson Inquiry
But this year’s Charles Wheeler’s lecture comes at a time when, after the public revulsion at the revelation of the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, people are questioning the values and ethics of journalism.
And this was what led up to:
• the Leveson Inquiry being set up
• then cross party talks
• parliament's approval of a draft Royal Charter to establish a new press complaints regime
• And then the press putting forward their own draft Royal Charter.
We are yet to get to the end of that process and it all remains deeply controversial.
The draft Royal Charter approved by Parliament
But the draft Royal Charter supported by the victims of press intrusion and approved by parliament provides the complaints system which is long overdue and poses no threat to the freedom of the press.
It is ironic that when we're talking about news reporting, hostile reporting of the Draft Royal Charter has fostered a number of myths.
I want to explode some of those myths today.
First it is constantly referred to as press regulation. It is not regulation, it is redress for those who complain about breaches by the press of their own code. So can we please be accurate and refer to it as a press complaints system and not press regulation.
Second it is attacked for being born out of a stitch-up in discussions from which the press were excluded. Not true. There were extensive discussions with the press. Government ministers met the press numerous times - and many more times than they met the victims of press intrusion. Looking back at my diary it’s clear that I had many meetings with the victims of press intrusion and Hacked Off. And I make no apology for that. But I had even more meetings with newspapers - with editors and proprietors.
And during those discussions we sought to work through how we could make the Leveson proposals work in practice - neither gold-plating them nor watering them down
The third myth is that press concerns about Leveson's report were ignored. Not true. Leveson proposed the recognition system be set up in statute and we supported that. The press didn't want that, so the government proposed a Royal Charter instead and - despite our misgivings – we accepted that. And there were many other changes - such as in the arbitration system and the responsibility for the code - that the press called for and we made.
The fourth myth is that it involves political interference in the press. Far from it. There's an absolute aversion to that from all sides of the House of Commons. No parliamentarian has called for political interference in the press. So we went to great lengths to keep Ministers and Parliament out of the process, and that’s what Leveson’s proposals actually did.
Under the terms of the draft Royal Charter, politicians are banned from:
• Serving on the Recognition Panel or
• Serving on the board of the independent self-regulator.
Once the Charter has been sealed by the Privy Council, to prevent ministers meddling with it, it cannot be changed except by a 2/3 majority of both Houses of Parliament.
So those were all things to keep politicians from being involved.
The fifth myth is that it's designed for national papers and threatens local papers. In fact, Leveson specifically provides that, if they want, local papers can set up their own regulator - or have different arrangements within the national regulator.
So the draft Royal Charter framework protects journalistic standards, protects the public and protects the freedom of the press.
Where we are now
This is a very controversial issue over which there have been heated and divisive arguments for decades.
So it is highly significant that all the party leaders agreed on the draft Royal Charter and brought it to Parliament. And it is highly significant that it was then endorsed unanimously by Parliament on 18 March.
But we are not at the end of the road of what is a complex and byzantine process of a Royal Charter. The situation has been complicated by the fact that while the government were ironing out the last technicalities of the Charter approved by Parliament a section of the newspaper industry (PressBoF) submitted to the Privy Council their own proposals for a Royal Charter.
The Privy Council can only consider one Charter on any one issue at the same time. And as the PressBoF draft Royal Charter was the first one to be submitted, the Privy Council must follow due process and must have the space to do that.
The Privy Council has now consulted on the PressBoF Royal Charter. We await their decision, and hope the Government will have the opportunity to submit the parliamentary Royal Charter to the Privy Council in due course.
We don’t yet know if and when the Privy Council will turn its attention to the draft Royal Charter approved by Parliament. But we hope it will be soon, because Parliament resolved in March for it to go to the Privy Council in May, which of course hasn’t happened.
But if and when it is approved, this will then be the process.
The Royal Charter will be sealed by the Privy Council.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments will appoint an Appointments Committee. That Appointments Committee will appoint the members of the Recognition Panel.
It will then be up to the press to propose an independent self-regulatory body, or bodies, which match up to the Recognition Criteria in the Royal Charter.
If within 12 months of the Royal Charter being sealed, not all significant news publishers are part of the system, the Recognition Panel will have to report that to Parliament and the public.
If within 15 months of the Royal Charter being sealed, there is no regulator, the Recognition Panel will have to report that to Parliament and the public.
Not just impunity, but invincibility
So that's the complaints system.
But while the sense of impunity which came from the lack of a proper press complaints system was a key part of the problem, so too was the sense of invincibility that came with too much newspaper power concentrated in the hands of one man and the lack of proper regulation to guard against media monopoly.
And that was also within Leveson's terms of reference.
The malpractice and illegality exposed by the Leveson inquiry was never just "one rogue reporter" or a few corrupt public officials. It was a symptom of an underlying problem: the power that comes from monopoly ownership. Before the News of the World closed, Murdoch owned newspapers with 37% of national circulation – two of the most influential dailies and two of the most influential Sunday papers. That is too much power in one man's hands. And had it not been for the hacking scandal his bid for the whole of BSkyB would have been waved through.
But this isn’t just about Rupert Murdoch.
It’s about guarding against monopoly, promoting the principle of plurality and having proper regulation for a media world where there is massive change and convergence between newspapers, broadcasting and social media.
Media monopoly matters
Preventing monopoly is important in any commercial area - for all the reasons we know about - such as protecting against new entrants being obstructed from getting into the market.
But there is an even greater imperative over and above the usual objections to monopoly when it comes to the media, because the media is about communication and the exchange of information in our democracy.
The concentration of unaccountable media power distorts the political system.
The free flow of information, of different points of view, is crucial for open debate.
The availability of a diverse range of views is important to each and every citizen.
But if you have a concentration of power, you have a small number of people who have too much control:
• Over the political agenda
• Over the public policy debate
• Over political decision making.
What makes media monopoly different from others is that the media plays a role in representing politicians to the public in a way that influences their votes. When a media company grows too big, it has the ability to trade policy influence for favourable coverage which is damaging to our democracy.
Too much power in too few hands hinders proper debate.
Plurality ensures that no media owner can exert too much influence on public opinion and on policy makers.
It ensures that no media company can have so much influence that it feels itself invincible, above, even, the rule of law.
It ensures no private interest can set itself above the public interest.
The time for reform is now
But we don’t have a proper regime for protecting against monopoly.
The inadequacies and complexities of the system were laid bare by the News Corp bid for the whole of BSkyB.
And the system is out of date – this is an age of great change in the media, where we have print newspapers, broadcast media and new media, and a convergence of all three.
Everyone agrees the system doesn't work and is out of date and that this problem - which has been there for some time – must be addressed now.
And this includes the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons in July 2011, after the revelation of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked, he said:
[to] address the vexed issue of media power. We need competition policy to be properly enforced. We need a sensible look at the relevance of plurality and cross-media ownership. Above all, we need to ensure that no one voice... becomes too powerful.
We agree with him.
We feel it would be best for us to go about this - as we did with press complaints - on a completely cross-party basis.
So I make this offer to Culture Secretary, Maria Miller. I call on her to establish a process that:
• brings the political parties together
• engages with the media industry and experts, and
• frames proposals for new regulation which should form part of a new Communications Act.
This process needs to be transparent, objective and have integrity.
There are a number of key issues that this process should address, about ownership within media sectors as well as cross-media ownership.
We favour clear bright lines –
• a lower ownership level below which there is no issue
• an upper limit beyond which it would not be possible to go and where there will need to be divestment
• and a clear, non discretionary regulatory regime of obligations (such as measures to bolster editorial independence, independent governance and duties to promote plurality) for those media organisations which fall in the middle band between the lower level and upper limit.
So, lower limit – no problem. Middle band – a non-discretionary set of obligations. Upper limit – not possible.
There’s already been a great deal of thinking on this.
Enders Analysis have proposed a 15% cross-media limit which would include any medium of communication that stands between a creator of content and an audience. Avaaz has proposed 20% as the upper limit for ownership within any one sector, while the NUJ has put forward a limit of 25% across media sectors and within each media sector.
Whatever the figures arrived at, we will need agreement on a clear measurement methodology that includes a recognition of the important influence of new media players online.
This process which I am proposing will also need to agree when those judgements about share will be made - not just, as now, when there's an event such as a merger but by continuous market monitoring.
And the process will need to agree remedies that will need to be applied when those limits are exceeded.
Clear limits and a non-discretionary regime for the middle band will remove the temptation for media organisations to pressurize ministers and the regulator and tie them up in litigation.
The process should also agree on the question of the ‘fit and proper person’ test. We think it’s currently undefined and too narrow and needs to be properly defined, so it clearly covers impropriety and failures of good governance as well as criminal convictions.
And the process should take particular account of the different circumstances that obtain at a local level, both broadcast and print.
Local newspapers are very important indeed, and when we talk of diversity and plurality, it is not just on a national level. Local reporting is important. It is central to the lives of communities and to local democracy across the country:
• keeping people in touch with local events in their community
• keeping people informed about important local issues through their reporting, and
• holding local democracy to account.
It’s 10 years since Parliament last decided on these issues - and that was before Facebook, let alone Twitter... The Communications Act 2003 doesn't even use the word ‘internet’!
The pace of change is only accelerating so our framework must be "future proof". And though it’s all very challenging and complex, it must not be left in the ‘too difficult’ box.
And above all, we will not make progress if we allow the political parties to divide on this issue.
We should work together to make sure that the freedom of debate in the democracy which we all care about is protected.
So British democracy and the British people, has the media it needs, the media it deserves, and a media which would be very different to the world of Charles Wheeler, but where the values it embodies would make him proud of it.