Journalism is already ‘subject to the most extensive legal inhibitions, guidance and codes’


Judith Townend

There is no need for statutory media regulation because there are a whole range of statutory controls that presently exist, Lord Hunt of Wirral said at the launch of the new edition of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists last Friday.

Additionally, judges can fill gaps through case law, said Hunt, chair of the Press Complaints Commission. “You do have in decided cases the ability to fill gaps and we’ve seen that with some of the recent judgments of Mr Justice Tugendhat and before that David Eady. Therefore, what is the need for anything more? That is where my case rests.”

Hunt used his keynote speech to reaffirm his stance against the introduction of new legislation. “This book does demonstrate that journalism, the press – online and in print – are already subject to the most extensive legal inhibitions, guidance, codes etc. and it’s all in here,” he told lawyers, journalists and academics at the seminar hosted by the NCTJ on 30 March at The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, London.

Hunt said that publication of the 21st edition of the text by Mike Dodd, legal advisor to the Press Association and Mark Hanna, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, could not be more timely.

I think McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists has deservedly become an institution in its own right. Its copies are an essential resource for everybody who works in the newsroom, anyone in the courtroom, anyone who studies this whole area…”

Hunt waved a copy of the previous edition in his evidence to Lord Justice Leveson, describing how he relied on it “to point out all the statutory provisions that apply and restrict freedom of the press“.

Hunt, a member of the Conservative Government from 1979 to 1995 and partner of DAC Beachcroft since 1969, drew on Parliamentary and regulatory experiences to illustrate his argument. Also at the launch was Michael McManus, the PCC’s recently appointed director of transition, who worked with Hunt on a review of legal services regulation for the Law Society of England and Wales in 2009. Hunt described how they had made 88 recommendations which were now being implemented.  He said

We are not people who believe that really there is any need for any more legislation unless there is some way of simplifying access to justice for those who feel they have been wronged and damaged.

Hunt described the reaction of the magic circle law firms to regulatory intervention, which took “great exception” to being treated by the regulator as if they were any other law firm. In view of practical issues over size, Hunt’s Law Society report introduced a ‘coming up for air’ approach for major law firms: “Authorised Internal Regulation“.

In other industry regulatory systems, complaints only go to ombudsmen when a particular company has failed to deal with a complaint properly, he said. But in the past, newspaper complaints had come via the PCC. If there is a complaint, Hunt said, it should be dealt with internally and an outside complaints mechanism is only necessary when it hasn’t been dealt with adequately by the publication.

While it had an effective complaints handling service, the PCC in its past form had not functioned as a regulator according to the five regulation principles that it must be “proportionate, consistent, accountable, targeted and transparent“, he said.

“When you looked at the PCC you could find nothing in the field of regulation. You could find a great deal of valuable work that was being done in complaints handling – mediation, pre-publication intervention, which is probably the closest you get to any regulatory powers but all voluntary and all subject to advocating the best way forward.

He joined the body with a blank sheet of paper for a new system, save his desire to avoid statutory regulation.

“There is no pre-existing blueprint. [On my first day] I rather threw Jeremy Paxman and various other people who were interviewing me by saying I’ve got a blank piece of paper and it was almost as if I was not allowed to have a blank piece of paper.

But Hunt feared an over-reaction, referencing the number of inspections in 12 months, two years after the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster (83) compared with the number in the same period before it happened (2). “This [over-reaction] does seem to be a tendency and where we are talking about freedom of the press it’s something we have to resist.”

He was also concerned that other countries would follow where the UK led:

“There are many countries, particularly in the Commonwealth, that base their whole system … on the British system. There are a lot of countries watching what happens here. I think if we were to introduce a bill to regulate the press that would be taken as an example to many other countries that they can do the same … don’t please let us set an example to the rest of the world that the only way to regulate the press is through statute.”

Lord Hunt’s conclusion? It can all be dealt with through a “credible system of self-regulation” and “a regulator not only with teeth but with power“. While he has set out his draft proposal for a new system and is “pressing on” he said that he will go in “step by step“; “ultimately the future regulatory model is a matter for Parliament“, he said.

I’m certainly not going to pre-empt Lord Justice Leveson, Parliament or the Coalition government… I am just keen to play my part in bringing forward proposals so I am moving forward with constructing and leading a transition to a new body.”

A body with no name for the time being – Lord Hunt said he was steering clear of that particular decision for now.

The 21st edition of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists by Mark Hanna and Mike Dodd is published by Oxford University Press.

Judith Townend is a freelance journalist and PhD researcher examining legal restraints on the media, who runs the Meeja Law blog. She is@jtownend on Twitter. (courtesy: Inforrm’s Blog)

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