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Dacre Swings…And Misses

On the weekend, Daily Mail Editor and PCC Chair Paul Dacre, released this statement (well, he calls it a report but reports have facts in them so he can’t mean that).

And it’s a load of balls.  Of course it’s a load of balls.  It’s written by the editor of the second-most popular (and quite profitable)newspaper in the country, in defence of being able to write things that are popular stories first and true or accurate as a distant second.  And it was never, ever, going to be anything else.

Which is good, because it saves avoiding everyone else’s point and lets me come at this from a different angle.  And given there’s so many other questions to answer, time saved is time earned.  Or something. Anyway, on with the diatribe against people who simply don’t understand that we should be left alone to do whatever we want even-handed view of the matter.  The original piece feels longer than it is and really, ahah, needs editing, so I’ll just quote the relevant bits.

But, alarmingly, many of the submissions expose a huge ignorance about how self-regulation works – often from those who should know better, in Parliament, in self-appointed media accountability groups and, more generally, in the blogosphere.

Um…the PCC is a self-appointed media accountability group.  The thing is, this looks like a classic argumentative sleight of hand.  Of course these people know what self-regulation is, but they’re not measuring whether self-regulation works in terms of working for the  regulatees; they’re measuring whether or not it meets the standards generally expected of any form of regulation.

And so far their answer seems to be ‘no’.  Also, I read a bunch of media blogs and I very much get the impression they’d all love to give it up and get their evenings back, but feel they can’t until newspapers improve.

But that’s not the point of his missive.  So next we’re invited to share our (well-meaning) shock at a misguided doctor, who points out that having lay members may help improve things.  Dacre dismisses his claim by pointing out that they do – and that they have more lay members than the GMC does, as though medicine is that simple*.

That isn’t the point.  The point is, how effective are the lay members if someone can’t even tell that they’re involved?  Some half of complaints to the PCC are rejected because they fall outside the code of conduct – that tells me that the code and PCC aren’t looking at the right thing.  I dunno, maybe those complaints really are that silly, but unless the PCC says what they are, all I know is that it dismisses a hell of a lot of complaints, quite  out of hand.

He goes on:

The shame of censure by their peers is far greater for editors than that resulting from any penalty imposed by an outside body – which most papers would devote considerable ingenuity into trying to circumvent.

Really?  Normally the only time papers take each other on is when their owners are feuding again.  Otherwise, they leave well alone.  Well, except the Guardian, whose funding model allows them to be that smug, but they’re a real exception in British newspapers anyway, being both leftie and a non-profit.

It’s also worth pointing out that circumventing the PCC currently takes considerably less ingenuity than any theoretical legislation.  All they have to do now, is walk away from the table.  It’s the same with individual complaints.  The best the PCC can do is recommend that someone is fired for a dodgy story.  Not make it happen, just recommend.  But what if that writer brings in stories and money – would an editor care about recommendations then?

However, Dacre also says:

But then, the Editors’ Code itself is widely copied internationally and a European Commissioner has praised The Editors’ Codebook, which acts as a public guide to how the system works in practice, as a leading exemplar of its kind.

Now, he actually has a point here; the Editor’s Code of Conduct is actually very good.  It mostly matches the original code of conduct, created by the NUJ (There’s one important exception but I’ll come to that).

The question is how it’s upheld.  Take for example, editors.  Now they often have something in their contracts about having to uphold the Code (I can only hope they say it pirate-style).

But the NUJ has been complaining for some time that its members are then pressured into breaking the code to get stories, then get hung out to dry if it all goes wrong.  The story is gotten, risk is transferred away from management and so many people want to do media that finding a replacement is easy.  And that’s where a big difference exists between the Editors’ code and the NUJ one – a conscience clause.  The NUJ has been agitating to get this put in for years now, but so far government and editors have resisted, leaving the above loophole all too readily available.

He then goes on about how actual fines are beyond the pale, before getting to another fun bit:

The sadness is that much of this criticism simply misses the point, for it is an ineluctable truth that many provincial newspapers and some nationals are now in a near-terminal economic condition.

Yes, they are.  Circulation is falling so badly that even treading water is seen as a good thing.  But why is this happening?

Consolidation is one reason.  Bigger papers means less independent newsgathering and corporatisation, while removing proprietors with a tendency to write about how nice that Hitler chappie is, brings an insatiable demand for profits.  Part of why the NUJ has been so against cutbacks of late is because papers are still profitable – just not enough for the managers.  Also, in the UK, this tendency has seen mass consolidation from two or three papers per town to one, the rise of freesheets and a demand for web-based news that doesn’t pay.

All of these could have been avoided; companies didn’t have to consolidate, but it was more profitable so they did (in theory, anyway – in practice, most mergers are more expensive).  Modern freesheets are the pinnacle of weak journalism, delivering people to advertisers, copying pieces from the news wire and avoiding real journalism.  They don’t have to be and, for local papers, often aren’t, but rags like The Metro are.

And then there’s the internet.  While I’m broadly convinced that the media could and should have developed a pay-for model a damn sight sooner, I also agree with the consensus amongst media and technology types that it wasn’t going to happen.  The result is media companies that still don’t quite know what they’re doing online and are losing money hand over fist.

The point is, newspaper circulation didn’t happen to those poor media companies; in many cases, it happened because of those media companies and that brings out a negligible level of sympathy.

Anyhow:

They will probably never concede the truth, which is that the PCC has over the years been a great success story. Britain’s newspapers are infinitely better behaved than they were two decades ago.

Well I won’t, because I’m exactly not convinced he’s right and he’s hardly trying to sway me with facts and figures here.  But I do feel I should point out that two decades ago, Thatcher threatened the papers with state regulation.  Yeah, even Little Miss ‘The State Can Do No Good’ was ready to pull the banhammer on newspapers.  Saying you’ve improved since then is like saying ‘I’ve not killed anyone in years’.  It may be true, it may be an improvement, but as someone who’s managed to live for years without killing – and I occasionally listen to The Moral Maze – it’s a pretty low bar.

And here’s the punchline.  As Sub-Editor for our student rag, I think that we need to have standards.  I’m against the university and Student Union setting them because, well, we want to do journalism and they want us to do PR, but my experience isn’t necessarily universal.  I have standards and I expect writers and uni to get in line with those, because my real responsibility is to the readers – not to treat them like morons.  But here is the truth about self-regulation.

Self-regulation is only a sticking point if it’s an excuse to do as little as possible  When you’re good at taking the decent course, you don’t need legislation to force you into it.  Conversely, if you’re a shitrag that manages to be stupid, homphobic and racist in one fell headline, I’m not sure even legislation will help completely, but it’s better than (to use a quite strange metaphor) letting your boy run round, wiping his dick on people’s faces.

Off the top of my head the papers have recently provided us with no attempt to verify a blatantly stupid story, untrue claims against a hunger striker and homophobia and racism against asylum seekers in the same story.  And they’re just the ones I remember after being up since 4am.

So yes, of course the PCC as self-regulator is seen as rubbish – because its standards are so low that, to all appearances, it really isn’t trying.

*Cue obvious joke about how it is for the Mail. I’m not going to make it, but knock yourself out.
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