Who’s in charge at a newspaper? The Impress code isn’t quite sure

Peter Preston
Paul Dacre: a powerful editor, but is he a publisher? Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

The new ethical code that bids to regulate royal charter journalism has finally surfaced. After many months of public consultation – more than 2,000 witnesses strong, plus point-by-point analysis of 56 other codes around the globe – we have lift-off for Impress: or would have, if any big hitters could be persuaded to join its ranks.

Good job, bad job? In one sense, a continuing job. The Impress version is pretty close to the editor’s code of practice used by the rival, non-chartered Independent Press Standards Organisation, which isn’t too surprising since Impress has been using the Ipso code while getting its own act together. But add a few useful twists from today’s newslists on fakery, internet attribution, plagiarism and the like and the polishing process has value. Here’s a code of immediate relevance that needn’t alarm anyone.

Except, perhaps, for one very curious thing. The code Ipso superintends belongs, historically and practically, to the editors whose papers join that organisation. It is their book of rules and regulations culled from experience, designed to command obedience from frontline reporters because the boss’s thumbprint is on the text.

But Lord Justice Leveson didn’t like the idea of editors writing their own rules – and the Impress code committee, heavy on media professors and media lawyers, doesn’t really have an active editor in its ranks. So who is the figurehead required to heed Impress’s injunctions?

Clause after clause makes that clear from the start: “Publishers must…”. The publisher is monarch of this domain. Yet see the difficulties that flow.

Not all newspapers and magazines are similarly owned or structured. Maybe many of the little publications and blogs that Impress currently regulates have an editor/publisher/general dogsbody in charge. But look higher and scratch your head. The Guardian and the Observer have editors with guaranteed independence. Asking a “publisher” (probably a chief executive) to control the details of code compliance actually diminishes that freedom.

Some big papers – say the assorted Trinity Mirrors – are part of a listed corporation, with boards, stock market analysts and all the trimmings. They have legal obligations to their shareholders, which is perhaps why news of phone hacking of 10 years past that’s eating up legal reserves today failed to reach ears at executive level. Editorial took its own decisions. The Mirror chief executives I talked to a decade ago genuinely didn’t know what was going on. They weren’t told for a purpose.

Is Mr Rupert Murdoch, in Impress’s eyes, the de facto publisher of the Sun? That invites classic retribution, but doesn’t easily fit with the new code.

“Publishers must protect the anonymity of sources where confidentiality has been agreed and not waived by the source, except where the source has been manifestly dishonest,” Impress says. Which means that handing over all those tens of thousands of emails and seeing Sun sources imprisoned or sacked was in direct contravention of many things, but not the company’s legal duties.

“Except where justified by an exceptional public interest, publishers must not pay public officials for information…” It’s the same old bind again, with only one basic solution. Simply, if one size must fit all, then editors have to take the rap and the risk; journalists must bear responsibility for their own code. And if that gets Leveson’s goat, it doesn’t matter. Pretending responsibilities and lines of trust are the same at the top of all newspapers is just that: a potentially dangerous pretence.

• What, pray, have Jamaica, Latvia, Germany, France, Uruguay, Andorra, Samoa, Suriname and Australia in common? That they all score higher than poor old Britain in this year’s World Press Freedom Index from Reporters with Borders. And Britain, it’s worth adding, is slipping: 12 places down over the last five years.

All such lists have their foibles, to be sure. I’m not sure I’d like to be a journalist in today’s Zuma-infected South Africa. But the Investigatory Powers Act, the looming threat of section 40 of the Crimes and Courts Act, and the horror of a new Espionage Act all drag GB down. We’re the unwitting, often deluded victims of a state culture that weighs freedom in the balance, makes nice speeches – then adds another ton of trouble to the statute book.

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