The penny dropped today – and not in a good way. For on this day when mostly i was writing about and thinking about the death of a brave young woman named Lucy Meadows, the realisation came in respect of quite another issue: in five years time there will be full state regulation of the press.
And it will all be down to the arrogance of those now sat in newsrooms and on newsdesks.
The “other issue” in this case, was the story that two trans prison inmates have applied for gender re-assignment. This process will cost, variously, £25,000 per prisoner (according to the Daily Mail), £45k apiece (in the Express) and nearly £50k (says the Sun).
The latter, for once, i’ll credit with a wording that may not be altogether inaccurate. Because they refer to the overall cost to taxpayers being £100k, as opposed to the cost of the gender re-assignment op, on which more in a moment.
The reason that the overall cost may be a tad exaggerated is: when costs pass through the prison service, they are subject to a multiplier. Someone who knows about these things informed me today of the £100 aspirin, when it is supplied in prisons.
Less leeway to the Express, which wrote of “the £45,000 cost of each operation”, as well as thousands more spent in prison officer training. Ri-ight.
That is between three and four times the cost of such an operation on the NHS. So one might be excused for questioning where the Express got such figures from. Which i did. Eventually i spoke with a news editor called Jane.
An indifferent journalist
I asked if it was common practice to make up figures. She said not: that they always used reputable sources.
I said the £45k figure was just nonsensical: that maybe she should check up on her figures and call me back, since this is an area in which i HAVE done some research. Not least because there is a danger, with such exaggeration doing the rounds, that it will result in violence against trans people.
Or alternately, i unwisely (pointlessly) suggested, i would speak to the Press Complaints Commission. Well, she said, the figure probably came from an agency. She was busy: hadn’t time for this, so i should take it to the PCC. And hung up.
Which was when realisation struck.
We shall fight them (over features)
Because this was the second time in recent weeks (the other instance was also over costs) when a journalist has done that. Instead of discussing, seeking to understand the point of difference, simply said: take it to the PCC. And once there, the matter has fallen into the formal process, which means i fill out a form and wait for acknowledgement, then it goes to the newspaper, and back to me and i respond and on and on and on.
In the case of my current complaint, the Sun is attempting to defend, line by line, a report that also contains a highly suspect figure for gender re-assignment. Why?
It is obvious they did little to investigate the cost BEFORE printing it. But having printed, they seem prepared to fight to the last line any attempt to show they might in any way have erred.
The war of attrition
Meanwhile, this morning, i was running out of patience. Quite apart from the Lucy Meadows case, and this story, written differently in each paper, there are small details in each story. The Mail, f’rinstance, quotes £200 a month for hormone treatment.
Really? Last time i looked, hormones cost the NHS about £3 a month – though anti-androgens, which are not issued always or for longer than a certain period of time might lift the cost somewhat.
And speaking with the PCC this morning on yet another issue, they sounded under siege. They’d get around to stuff asap. When they could. And they didn’t know when that would be.
Which brings me to the nub of this. A press inaccuracy goes up and can, in the space of hours, do untold damage. The process to bring that inaccuracy down could, with goodwill, be equally speedy.
But forcing change to go thru the PCC every time means two things. An overwhelmed PCC. And errors that stay up for weeks. Not to mention that if every challenge to what is written is defended as it is now, then every change is a long, tortuous extraction.
I am left in two minds about this. Is the stubbornness and the refusal to contemplate any change unless sanctioned by the PCC mere laziness – or is it something worse:the Press subtly undermining and sabotaging the regulatory system to the point that it no longer works at all?
So on to statutory regulation
And in response, should we, the public, just give up, or join in that general sabotage: demopnstrating beyond doubt to the politicians that regulation in its present form cannot work. Should we, in fact, be working with the press to overwhelm the PCC?
Or at least to persuade parliament to give the PCC teeth. because in the end, it was not statutory backing that made people take notice of the Information Commissioner, but the dramatic raising of the level of fine that they could levy.
And in the long-term, when it becomes obvious to all and sundry that even this watered down new-fangled regulation isn’t capable of working, will parliament finally conclude the logic of what it started this week and opt for full state regulation?
The answer, i am sure, will be yes: and while the press will carp and whinge again at such injustice, the only peoplethey will have to blame are themselves.