Wednesday, 20 March 2013

How to be "the Press" and not get bankrupted

With all the class of a toddler having a tantrum in a supermarket at 6pm on a Friday, senior journalists continue with their dreary moaning about the Royal Charter to come on regulation of the press. If they're not trying to rally supporters with scaremongering about how all the blogs are going to be shut down, then they're misrepresenting (or misunderstanding) the realities of the legislation.

Take the Independent, they talk (as the Daily Mail do) of £1m fines for breaking the code of conduct, and of the state regulator (who doesn't even exist) being able to dictate front page apologies.

On the former they're scaremongering, the £1m fine is a maximum, only if your turn over is £100m a year, and only for repeated and serious breaches of the code of conduct...and may not even be that high! On the latter, they have seemingly not realised that where corrections and apologies are talked about, the terminology is about independent regulators, not the regulator of regulators that is the Recognition Panel, which they'd know if they read all the way to page 22.

Then there is Simon Jenkins, pulling bullshit from thin air as if it is cast iron fact. For example...

But we have to accept that sometimes there will be mavericks who are beyond reprimand. Free speech within the law is their entitlement.

"Hey, some people are going to be arseholes within the law...don't go changing the law so they have to re-evaluate being arseholes!"

The regulator is obliged to offer a free arbitration service to anyone who feels traduced or unfairly treated by the press

Except where the regulator believes that they aren't...not *quite* obligation, but journalists have had a really tough time with definitions this week.

Indeed, the service will have a vested interest in fines as it will be financed by "fine farming", like traffic wardens.

There is literally no evidence of this whatsoever. Arbitration panels are financed by both parties in a pre-agreed fashion. Fines don't come in to it.

Parliament on Monday proposed no safeguards against this becoming a PPI-style stampede for anyone – including lobbyists

Except for the bit where it says "The Board will need to have the discretion not to look into complaints if they feel that the complaint is [..] simply an attempt to lobby."

Worse ensues if editors reject the new regulator and, because a matter of law is at stake, the case goes to a proper court. They there face punitive "million-pound" fines.

Simon here confusing the potential maximum fine for repeat abuse of the code of conduct (as the Independent does, see above) with exemplary charges, which actually have no upper limit defined in law, as it happens.

It is hard to imagine a more "chilling" deterrent to serious press investigation than this.

And so, for those journalists and editors deciding to abanding serious press investigation due to these new laws, here are a few handy tips for the press to help ensure that your "integrity" can remain intact.

1) Get in with a regulator, or help organise for one to be set up

You know, being with a regulator is going to be common sense. If you do something wrong and someone can't go to the regulator, then they can only go to the courts. This is why exemplary damages exist, it's to say "You know, this person could have got you to print a correction and get a few hundred quid off you, all within a've drawn it out, forced them to shell out on lawyers, now pay up for trying to stand in the way of justice"

Think that the regulator that you are/have gone for isn't keeping a fair balance between keeping you in line and staving off vexatious complaints? Go and sort out a new regulator. There are no limits on the number of regulators that can exist, as long as they are recognised by the recognition panel. The power is in your hands, create competition between regulators, reap the rewards.

2) Find your regulators code of conduct, or even help draft it, and apply it entirely to your own employee code of conduct

If you are following the code of conduct set out by the regulator, they will never let a complaint through to arbitration against you. The best way to protect yourself is to not be a dick, follow the rules. It's not a closed shop either, get involved with the formation of your regulator and you may be instrumental in ensuring the code of conduct is fit for purpose.

Don't like the code, or find your regulator is letting vexatious complaints through to generate fines? Please see point 1 above about organising a new one.

3) Keep up to date with who has told you to keep away

Your regulator will be keeping a list of people that are clearly "off limits". Want to provoke legal action against you? Go ahead and probe their lives or buy photos of them, outside of the relevant context of legitimate news and public interest stories. Otherwise, maybe staying ethical would be a less risky avenue.

4) Swot up on your regulator's "public interest" definition

Your regulator will need to provide guidance on when it's ok to break the code of conduct. Do you need to break the code of conduct? Worried that a complaint might be made that will cost you ONE MILLION POUNDS? Just talk to your damn regulator, they're hardly going to say "sure, you can do this, but not that" and, when you follow their advice, still allow the complaint against you through to arbitration.

Oh what, they have? MAKE A NEW REGULATOR (see point 1, again).

5) Make a transparent, readily available and FAST complaints procedure

Create a way for the public, whether personally involved or not, to complain about your work. Criticism is an opportunity for growth, and a mutually agreed outcome to a grievance strengthens relationships and respect. By having this procedure the regulation body you're subscribed to shouldn't be listening to a complaint before you've dealt with it, let alone take it to arbitration.

5b) Take complaints seriously

Oh, sure, you've got your complaints procedure but the net result is that you pretty much never accept fault, and any time you do you print the correction or apology in small text in one paragraph in 1/16th of a text heavy page. Are you surprised that the regulator feels they have to allow the complaint then made to them to go to arbitration?

If anything is making it to arbitration then it is going to usually be because you are are being unreasonable. Start thinking like individuals that like to be reasonable. Swallow your pride and print that apology with the same prominence you told the lie.

6) Don't keep making mistakes

So you've broken the code a few times, and you've not done anything about it, and you've had it go to arbitration....and you've lost each time. Maybe now is the time to re-evaluate your purpose in life and evolve? Or maybe you want to be fined up to 1% of your turnover (to a max of £1m)? Your call.

7) Profit

Big or small, if you follow the above steps then your "serious investigative journalism" is not going to result in your paper going bust. The insinuation that people are going to be able to go straight to asking you for a million pounds is an outright fallacy, and totally inaccurate with regards to the legislation concerned.

Perhaps this is a foretelling of the future though, as press regulation is passing journalists still can't get over misdirection, half truths and actual lies to try and push their view...right down to the wire the press is more than happy to show why it is so very important that these laws come to pass.

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