After years of tenacious reporting by The Guardian, the scandal of telephone hacking and interception of communications by The News of the World has finally reached a tipping point. Yesterday the Prime Minister, in response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition in Prime Minister’s Questions, promised at least one public inquiry into the whole affair. Many commentators have already re-quoted David Mellor’s statement that the press were drinking in the last chance saloon (widely reported to be in 1989, when as Secretary of State for the Department of National Heritage, but no Hansard reference found). So what will happen?
It is more than possible that there will be a call for statutory regulation of newspapers. It is obvious that the Press Complaints Commission has been unable to act as a rigorous regulator. Self-regulation may no longer be tenable in print media.
How does this compare with broadcast media? Radio and television are subject to statutory control under the Communications Act 2003 and the Broadcasting Act 1996. Regulation on standards in programmes, sponsorship, product placement in television programmes, fairness and privacy are consequently set out in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. In particular, there are separate sections of the Code that deal with fairness and privacy. There is a degree of precedent in the way Ofcom considers complaints about breaches of fairness and privacy. Ofcom has published guidance on procedures for dealing with fairness and privacy complaints, with all adjudications published in the Broadcasting Bulletin. Financial penalties can be imposed to a theoretical limit of 5% of relevant turnover (or “qualifying revenue”, in the terminology of the Broadcasting Act 1990). Fines have reached into the millions, for example £3,000,000 against LWT (Holdings) Limited in connection with breaches in connection with Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway in 2008.
I suggest, therefore, that a statutory scheme already exists that could easily be extended to cover print media. All that is required is the political will.