Hacking trial: what now for newspapers?
- 24 June 2014
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
With the hacking trial now over, what next for the UK's newspapers?
Our media correspondent, David Sillito, looks at the possible implications.
Rupert Murdoch has, of course, already closed the News of the World because of hacking. He has also rebranded the firm that owns his other newspapers, the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times, as News UK. The old 'fortress Wapping' site is being demolished and plans are underway to move to a new headquarters at the Shard development on the south side of the Thames. The staff have also received training. News UK says 80,000 online 'anti-corruption' courses have been completed. The story they want to tell, is of a company moving on and leaving the past behind. One problem is that this is far from the end of the legal process. A string of trials are still looming.
Provisional dates have so far been set for 18 further trials and hearings. Not all involve journalists but all are related to either hacking or allegations of paying officials for stories.
One claim is that the hacking issue has led to a more cautious press. It's hard to prove one way or another. However, there has been no shortage of complaints.
The supposedly widely discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has just had its busiest year ever, with an increase in complaints of around 5%.
Accuracy and harassment are major concerns but privacy is a growing issue. The media lawyer, Paul Tweed, says he used to approach the PCC perhaps once or twice a year. It's now two or three times a month and it's being driven by the growing market for celebrity photographs in the online editions of newspapers. The most complained about site in the UK is Mail Online. The Sun attracts only a fraction of its complaints.
In the autumn, there will be a new press regulator to replace the PCC. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is a body with more powers to investigate and levy fines but there will be no independent oversight of its workings.
Last year's Royal Charter on press regulation laid out a system that would offer cost advantages in the libel courts if a regulator agreed to oversight by an independent recognition committee. IPSO almost certainly won't sign up.
Some papers such as the Financial Times are not even joining IPSO and are relying on their own complaints processes. The Guardian and the Independent are still considering their options.
So was the Royal Charter a waste of time?
There are two possibilities that may change matters.
The first is if a rival regulator emerges and signs up some newspapers and then puts itself forward for recognition. If it meets the criteria laid out in the Royal Charter, then the cost advantages in the courts would come in to play. That may change matters for members of IPSO. One such candidate is Impress, which is being set up by the journalist Jonathan Heawood and has already won a degree of support, most notably some financial backing from author JK Rowling.
And we are still waiting for the formation of the 'Recognition Committee' and its first report. If it reports to Parliament that no regulator has put itself forward or met its criteria, then it is up to MPs to decide how to proceed. Campaigners such as the group Hacked Off say this would be the moment to compel the press to join the system. The newspapers would resist this to the end.
The Tabloid Newspapers
They still wield a lot of power in this country but it's a waning power. Recent figures by the National Readership Survey reveal that the Sun is still read by just under six million people a day but those figures are falling rapidly. It has lost around a million readers over the last 12 months. This figure assumes that one newspaper is then read by several different people. Sales of the newspaper have fallen by more than 250,000 over the last year to just over two million a day. Only the Independent showed a bigger percentage drop. Secondly, the creation of an online paywall has seen its online readership drop from more than 750,000 a day to under 100,000. Compare that with the Daily Mail's two million online readers in the UK. The Sun is no longer Britain's most read newspaper brand.
Source: National Readership Survey