29/11/2012 10:24 GMT | Updated 29/01/2013 05:12 GMT

That Monstrous Regiment of Hacks: Why 'Regulation' of the Press Is a Red Herring

To regulate or not to regulate: that... well, that really is NOT the question. Though if you'd listened to the news over the last 24 hours and heard the squeals of media mouthpieces in defence of self-serving privilege, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Leveson, and the debate that follows, really is not about the r-word. But it helps press and a certain brand of outraged politician to convince the public can be convinced otherwise.

No. Leveson, the months of evidence taking and the protracted deliberations that followed were not, are not some convoluted plot got up by the enemies of freedom to shackle the troublesome and truth-seeking. The Leveson inquiry owes its existence to some bad behaviour - some very bad behaviour, indeed - on the part of the press. Phones hacked, on an industrial scale. Privacy trashed. Criminal investigations interfered with. Bribery. That's just for starters.

And for all the squeaks of high-pitched outrage at the very idea of regulation, a fair few of these activities are already pretty stringently regulated, as those same squeakers have been keen, inconsistently, to point out. That is why a number of Fleet St's finest will shortly find themselves in the dock.

That is also why the Press Complaints Commission, which in theory already regulates on the basis of principles so injurious to free speech as encouraging accuracy and discouraging overt racism, listened carefully to the early stages of the Inquiry - and then spectacularly imploded, re-inventing itself as a transitional body with much the same people, principles and premises long before the good Lord delivered his verdict.

Leveson: the real issues

So what are the real issues?For me, I guess the focus of this inquiry has never been about the great and the good: at least not insofar as they find themselves on the victim side of the equation. Phone hacked? Lies printed about you in the Daily Beast? Well, if you happen to be Lord McAlpine or Hugh Grant, you have a remedy to hand. Libel suits are an expensive luxury and not one that the average citizen is ever sensibly likely to risk. But if you happen to have a spare million or two stashed away in the bank, the possibilities are endless.

But if you're Mr or Mrs Average? Or worse, a member of a minority community struggling to gain the respect and understanding of the wider world? No chance!

As a journalist myself, I am sympathetic to the idea of press freedom: I like free speech. At the same time, I am a campaigner, an activist and - this makes a difference - more of a news analyst and features writer than out-and-out news reporter. Which is not to say I haven't, don't still, pick up on and report the occasional hot news topic.

I tend to take time: I go behind the instant news story, get back to sources. I try to establish what really happened in a given instance and not simply opt for the easy journalistic way out: "standing up" a story on the basis that some well-placed source has gone on record to confirm it, or provided a juicy quote that gives it legs. Often - too often - I find that the story that is already half way round the world is not for real. Or only partly real.

Truth: the first casualty

For instance? The recent fuss over HMV banning blokes from wearing long hair at work? I rang their press office, in the process eliciting a mild compliment from their press officer as having been almost the only journalist to do so. The result? Not true. This was a health and safety rule, applied to all staff working in the packing area (where complex machinery and long hair really don't mix).

Or there was the Brighton Council "plan" to abolish the titles of "Mr" and "Mrs". Also not true. The issue - of gendered titles on online forms - came up in a survey. Brighton intended to discuss it: to look at a range of possible responses. The only evidence for the shock-horror story that followed was condemnation from a Tory councillor after being fed a leading question by a local journalist, who asked her what she thought of "the plan". Hmmmm!

The point is that the press regularly mis-reports or distorts. Very often, that distortion is not about some high profile public figure: the back office lawyers mostly make sure of that. Rather, it is about communities, minorities and the like who happen to be easy targets. People that the public don't quite understand: and therefore people about whom it is easy to tell stories that connect to a populist mis-leading and discriminatory narrative.

Minorities under fire

The two groups that have come in for some of the worst treatment over the last few years are the transgender and travellers. The better organised of the two, at least as far as the media are concerned, is the first, which is why Lord Leveson took evidence not once, but twice, from Trans Media Watch.

Harrowing stuff, not just in terms of the vileness of some of the coverage: but also the outcomes for those door-stepped, "exposed", mostly for just living their lives and trashed. Truly. For after the press moves on, what is left behind is very often damage. Abuse and violence directed towards the object of their mis-reporting. Lost jobs. Broken relationships.

Process: the press way of righting wrongs

Yet they don't care. Nor are they especially bothered with righting wrongs. Or inaccuracies. Take the cost of gender re-assignment surgery, which is a topic I have written about at length. The MtF surgery does not cost - as most of the national press reported a year or so back - £60,000. Nowhere near.

So I raised the matter with a number of newsdesks and was stonewalled. There was process to go through to check errors. It took time. It was possibly a matter of opinion. If I factored in other costs. ..

No, no and no. An institution which, to its credit, can have coverage of major global events live online within minutes of them happening is virtually brain-dead when it comes to dealing with its own mistakes.

Corrections must follow process. Process involves arguing with serpentine sophistry what was meant, what the public might understand by a particular wording. To which the answer is simple: if research suggests the public widely understood something inaccurate from a piece, the piece was misleading. Period. No need for clever literary analysis.

Regulation? Twas ever thus...

Which brings us back to where we began. The press is already regulated. By law. By code. One must assume no-one is arguing for a rolling back of the law. Though one must wonder whether those arguing so strenuously against regulation really mean that as far as they are concerned, the PCC editors' code, to which they are supposedly signed, is equally despicable.

We need mechanisms that put errors right quickly, without fuss, and without need to resort to the nuclear option in legal terms. We need the press to "get" that misleading is not what some clever scribbler elite say it is: it is something easily checked. Just ask the public: read the comments!

We also need, as shadow media minister Helen Goodman, MP made clear, the possibility of "third party complaints", because "negative stereotyping is rife and damaging". Yet all too often, such stereotyping may damn entire communities with impunity, because the current PCC code restricts most complaints to articles that identify clear individuals.

These are simple principles, not a million miles away from what we already have. Regulation may take many forms. A particular form of direct state intervention is odious, not to mention dangerous.

But this is red herring. There are ways in which the press can be regulated that do not require speech chilling measures. Once more: we are here, as we have been so often in the past half century because over and over and over, no matter what promises the press gives, no matter what undertakings, it has not cleaned up its act. It has conceded, time and time again, that there are principles it can happily sign up to without the sky falling in.

Yet in the end, it is constitutionally incapable of doing so. Existing mechanisms don't work. It is time to update those mechanisms - give them teeth. Some might like to represent that as a complete break with the past.

It isn't.