Parliament and independent press regulation – a chronology of ducks.

If you are interested in press reform, the chronology of events below should tell you how previous politicians have ducked their responsibility to act. When Leveson reports on Thursday, it will be up to you to convince your local MP that they should have the courage to finally deal with this issue. So why not consider joining the campaign for a free and accountable press? They’re called Hacked Off and they need your help and support.

1953 Four years after a Royal Commission told the press to start regulating itself, nothing had been done. It took the threat of legislation – a broadly-supported Private Member’s Bill from C.J. Simmons MP – to make them create the General Council of the Press. Withdrawing the Bill, a sceptical Simmons warned: ‘I give warning here and now that if it [the Council] fails, some of us again will have to come forward with a measure similar to this bill.’

1962 A second Royal Commission told the press it had to make self-regulation effective, but again warned of legislation: ‘We think that the Press should be given another opportunity itself voluntarily to establish an authoritative General Council . . . We recommend, however, that the government should specify a time limit after which legislation would be introduced.‘

1977 The third Royal Commission on the Press urged radical changes to the Press Council, which was found to lack independence and credibility, and said that if nothing was done Parliament should act. The report said: ‘We recommend that the press should be given one final chance to prove that voluntary self-regulation can be made to work.’

1990 The Calcutt Committee on Privacy was a response to Hillsborough, the grossly intrusive reporting of the death of TV presenter Russell Harty and an accident suffered by actor Gorden Kaye. David Mellor, then a Home Office minister, had said: ‘I do believe the press – the popular press – is drinking in the last chance saloon.’ Calcutt recommended the establishment of an effective Press Complaints Commission and newspapers were given a ‘year of grace’ to make this work. Home Secretary, David Waddingston, told the Commons: ‘This is positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation.’

1993 The Calcutt Review concluded that the PCC was ‘not… an effective regulator of the press’. It recommended a Press Complaints Tribunal backed by statute. A Major government with a slender majority failed to implement this.

2011 In the Commons in July 2011, speaking after the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, David Cameron said: ‘I accept we can’t say it’s the last chance saloon all over again. We’ve done that.’

Hacked Off is working hard on behalf of the many ordinary victims and the public, of whom 78 per cent support independent press regulation, to ensure that their voices are not drowned out by the press. We are about to be steamrolled by one of the most powerful lobbying operations in parliamentary history. Please play your part in stopping it.

Policy Brief: Mandated Data Release: A New ‘Right to Data’ Power For the Information Commissioner’s Office by Tom Steinberg,1st June 2011

Tom Steinberg, boss of My Society and former adviser to the Conservative party and last Labour government, has just published a number policy advice papers on his site. They represent five years of advice to ministers and the Conservatives when in opposition. I’m slowly ploughing through them but one of them jumps off the page at me. His valedictory paper recommends beefing up the powers of the ICO. I reproduce it here in full and would welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.

Problem Statement

The key vulnerability of the present open government data agenda is the dearth of mechanisms to ensure that valuable data is published not simply at all, but published well enough, and on an ongoing basis.

Ministers have been successful in releasing a range of important datasets, but without continued watchfulness it is almost inevitable that a hard-pressed public services, unfamiliar with cheap automation techniques, will fail to sustain publication.

This is not just a theory – it is an everyday problem well known to most practioners and users of public data. For example, departments ceased publication of hospitality and meeting
data mere months after it was mandated by ministers in the last Government,and under this administration some departments have failed at timely release of further iterations of their £25k spending data, citing process problems.

This falling away of publication happens because releasing data does not sit within departmental priorities like ‘publishing unemployment figures’ or ‘delivering manifesto commitments’ – well known, high priority obligations. A mechanism is required to create such awareness within leaderships where and when it is needed. And it is not simply needed by the public – it is needed by ministers who want to see their wishes carried out on a sustained basis.

Policy Proposal

It is therefore proposed that the Information Commissioner is granted a new power to address this problem.

The new power would allow the ICO to add datasets to any public body’s Publication Scheme, on behalf of public or ministerial requests to do so.

More specifically, the power would enable the ICO to mandate publication not simply
of a named document, but of a particular dataset, specifying not only the data to be published, but the frequency of publication, the format of the data and even, in exceptional circumstances, the quality of the data.

This power would only be used by the ICO after a new form of public interest test was carried out by the ICO, to determine whether the cost and inconvenience of publishing this

data was outweighed by the value generated by regular public release.

To back up the ICO’s ability to mandate releases, the ICO would be given new powers to impose remedial measures on non-complying public bodies modelled on the Civic Monetary Penalties introduced for breaches of the Data Protection Act. These penalties would both create strong incentives for compliance, as well as bringing serious breaches of good practice in public data handling onto a level playing field with serious breaches of good practice in private data handling.

How this fits within the Right to Data Strategy

The Right to Data Strategy has been missing a clear central piece. The Mandated Data Release proposal is designed to form a hard center around which policies such as data inventories, culture change and the FOIA amendments currently in front of parliament could fit with extra clarity. It marks an escalation path which most public bodies would hope to avoid through close adherence to the voluntary parts of the strategy, and would boost uptake on the non-statutory policies currently in discussion.


This policy proposal is an outline of a tough vision, but the details have not been worked through in detail. The following are the questions which this idea most obviously raises:

  • ?  What is the process through which the ICO comes to decide that their new power should be used? How do the public and ministers ask for the ICO to deploy this new power on their behalf?
  • ?  How would the ICO’s statutory role, and resourcing have to change to cope with this new responsibility.
  • ?  What is the dividing line between FOI appeals and the new process for Mandated Data Release?
  • ?  What counts as a proportionate but not-excessive remedial action?
  • ?  How do public bodies cope if the Mandated Release imposes a cost upon them?
  • ?  Is there a right of appeal?
  • ?  Is there a cost limit to Mandated Releases?
  • ?  What are the principles on which Mandates are judged, and what is the judging

    process to determine that the public interest is being insufficiently served?

Dory Previn – Mythical Kings and Iguanas

After my colleague Dr Stella Creasy was asked to write the sleeve notes of a re-issued Wedding Present album, the Indie asked me to write the sleeve notes of an album I would like to see re-issued. It’s in today: It got quite heavily subbed so if you want to read the full version it’s here:

When Dory Previn did confessional, it was as if she’d etched out the lyrics into her own flesh with a cold steel scalpel. This album is a series of dark folk ballads that challenge every taboo. “Angels and devils the following day” weighs up the relative advantage of a physically abusive lover against a psychologically abusive one. Sex with a younger man is explored in “Lemon haired ladies” with the sardonic lines “Whatever you give me, I’ll take as it comes, Discarding self-pity, I’ll manage with crumbs”. “A stone for Bessie Smith” is the remarkable story of Janis Joplin’s purchase of a stone for the unmarked grave of the “greatest blues singer that ever lived” Bessie Smith, a few short months before her own sudden early death. 

Mythical Kings deserves to be up there with Joni’s “Blue”, or Carole King’s “Tapestry”. Her work was a reflection of the liberation politics of the early seventies but it stands the test of time as a unique piece of recorded music.

Dory died this year. A tiny part of my teenage self loved this woman after years of listening to Mythical Kings with the solitude of an old Sony walkman. Do not grief her passing, for as Dory says on the track that formed the album name “Sure that everything of worth is in the sky and not in the earth”. Do not grief but remember her name. Re-issue this album.

Gaza: Halt to violence on both sides is now absolutely critical

Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Labour Party, said:

“The deaths in Gaza and Israel are horrifying. It is a very dangerous moment not just for Israel and the Palestinians but for the region. A halt to violence on both sides is now absolutely critical.

“A full scale ground invasion would be a disaster for the peoples of both Gaza and Israel. It would damage profoundly hopes for peace and security and could lead to another humanitarian crisis.

“Both sides, regional players and the international community – including the UK Government – share a profound moral duty to do everything possible to prevent such a catastrophic development. Every effort must be made through the United Nations, the Quartet, The Arab League and the wider international community to reverse decisively the unfolding dynamic of events. Time is now very short to avert another catastrophe.”