against the PCC, for the Competition Commission
I expect there’s going to be a hell of a lot of ink spilled in the next few months about different schemes for “regulating the press”, how the very idea is an abomination and this has nothing to do with my column in some Murdoch rag, how this outrageous behaviour makes it utterly necessary for journalists to have to justify themselves to some sort of horrible post-Hutton BBC quangocracy, yadda yadda.
My position is this. Press regulatory bodies will probably be very much like “regulators” of all the kinds that have sprung up since the privatisation era. That is to say, they’ll either be impossibly bureaucratic or pathetically complicit or both. The problem with regulators, especially the post-80s, all mates together in an orderly market sort, is that they are a weak-sauce compromise.
Once you create a regulator, you’re doing two things: accepting that the forces of the market aren’t going to fix your problem, and withdrawing the forces of democracy in favour of the forces of bureaucracy. Compare the Home Affairs Committee’s vicious and pointed quizzing of Andy Hayman to, well, anything the IPCC ever gets up to. Nye Bevin’s crack about dropped bedpans echoing through the halls of Westminster was very much to the point. Everyone moans about ministerial line management, but when did you last vote for the OFCOM Director-General?
There’s a coda to this – over time, if you leave it to the departmental government, the temptation to fiddle and to indulge in recreational reorganisation will get progressively stronger. My point, however, is that very often regulatory bodies function either as a veiled form of ministerial control or else as a flak-catcher protecting the powerful from public scrutiny.
In this case, I would argue that any regulatory committee will be either complicit or floppy if it has to face up to something like News International. The problem is not one of processing complaints more efficiency, although that would of course be nice. It is one of power and only changing the realities of power will fix it.
The trust must go. We don’t need more quangology. We need a genuinely competitive and diverse media market. We need to break the bastards up and set the rules to prevent them reforming. And the agency to do this is the Competition Commission, one of the oldest regulators and one of the few that has the taste of saying “No”. But it is absolutely necessary to set its terms of reference so that it will have no choice but to break up the trusts. That means changing the law.