Talk about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. After a frantic couple of weeks we are now apparently moving towards a new regulatory regime for the printed press.
National newspaper editors have been dashing hither and thither to rearrange the regulatory furniture to avoid statutory controls in the wake of the Leveson Report.
However, one can’t help but wonder if their efforts might turn out to be irrelevant – and the report itself a historical curiosity.
The four volume tome demonstrates that the newspaper business seems to be holed below the waterline – with only a few years to live.
Buried within its 2,000 pages was the fact that sales of the top national dailies have sunk by 40% between September 2002 and 2012. If this trend continues there won’t be an industry worth regulating by 2022.
Of course there have been several attempts to regulate the industry before – but none have cowed the business to this extent. That might be partly because of the weight of its transgressions this time round.
But it might also be because the industry is now a shadow of its former self. In those halcyon days prior to the internet and multi-channel television, papers like The Mirror, for example, once sold up to 7m copies a day; a far cry from its current circulation of around 1m.
Any politician looking to meddle with that sort of power base did so at their peril. So ironically, the fact that the press is weaker partly explains why it has submitted to more powerful regulation.
However, the cause for this weakness – the internet – hardly merited mention in the Leveson report itself. Referring to it as an ‘ethical vacuum’, the net was dismissed in a few short paragraphs because Leveson did not believe people took online news as seriously as information published by newspapers.
Although the websites of newspapers which sign up to the new code will be covered by the new regime, it is not clear what will happen if one day in the future they close their offline products. At that point the fear of statutory intervention will be less of a stick, as it will be easier to move websites offshore.
This means organisations like the Mail Online might one day argue that since they have grown into global products, it would be no longer appropriate for them to submit to regulation from a particular national government.
So although Leveson gives a fascinating insight into the history of the British press, the report fails to cover its digital future. Even Lord Leveson himself seemed to acknowledge this failing. For in one of the few post-publication comments he has made, he said new laws would ultimately be required to regulate the internet.
But of course, how this will be achieved in practice is anyone’s guess – as such laws are not within the gift of any one nation state.
So in my view – despite the hype and new Government inspired constructs – the ultimate regulator or the British press will remain its readers. If they disagree with an organisation’s tone, ethics or editorial line they can click their mouse and go elsewhere.
And after listening to all those advocates of statutory control, I say: ‘thank God for that’.
Gordon Young is editor of The Drum
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