Curiously enough, a colleague and I spent over ten years up to early 2012Â regulating the UK media. We headed up an organisation called the Office for the Regulation of the Media, otherwise known as OFTROM.
There were two policy directorates which dealt respectively with press and broadcast media standards, a media complaints directorate, and corporate services. My role as Director of Media Complaints was to oversee teams of caseworkers who investigated complaints about press intrusion submitted by individuals. Once the evidence about each complaint had been assembled toÂ confirmÂ its validity,Â the file went to the Media Complaints Board which made a ruling as to compensation. The Board met twice a month and consisted of media representatives and OFTROM members. If the media organisation didn’t comply with an OFTROM ruling, the individual had to resort to taking them to court, but that was a less certain and more costly route for both parties.
In practice, OFTROM wasn’t really very good. We were over-staffed, badly structured, stuck in three locations across London and not making best use of new technology. We were also much reviled by the media industry, of course, so every problem was magnified in the eyes of the public.
TheÂ Leveson inquiryÂ came upon us as a serious case of life imitating art andÂ we wondered if,Â just in order to save everyone a good deal of time and money,Â we should submit our consulting skills role play scenario (created at the now defunctÂ National School of Government) as evidence.
As Media Complaints Director, I enjoyed grappling with the balance between public interest and press intrusion, and it was interesting to contemplate how the dividing line between the two had changed over time. It was obvious that what was an acceptable press story in 2012 would not have been tolerated in the 1950s. Whether that shift is a good thing – progress – is a matter of debate. Although it would be hard to argue for a return to the time when Edward VIII’s liaison with MrsÂ Simpson was kept out of the British press until his abdication, the current obsession with celebrity trivia is equally distasteful. The public interest is not the same thing as what the public is interested in.
What also became clear during the OFTROM years was that it was impossible for the regulator to keep up with the impact of the internet. Â When OFTROM was invented, the news arrived on paper or via radio and television. By the time of its demise, theÂ distinctionÂ between one medium or another was irrelevant.
This is a point well-made by Hugo Rifkind in his recent article in the Times. Of course Hugo’s articleÂ sits behind a paywall and you won’t be able to read it unless you subscribe to The Times, one way or another. Â But if there is going to be any real and valid journalism in the future it will have to be paid for somehow.
The rest of us are just typing.