The issue of reform of press regulation is too important to be left to the establishment; citizens must be at the heart of any process to sort out the mess created by the current phone hacking scandal.

I’d not been intending to comment on the News International hacking story. Given the acres of news print, hours of TV footage and reams of Twitter comment (is ream the right measure?), I didn’t think I had much to add, either in terms of the crimes that have been committed or in terms of their implications for our institutions of government and democracy itself.

Yet in the few short weeks since the Guardian first broke the story that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked I think that the debate about the implications for British democracy have missed one critical element; citizens.

We have now had an emergency debate by a recalled Parliament, select committee hearings, the announcement of a judge led inquiry with the powers to summon witnesses, and a heavily resourced police investigation.

I feel like I’m repeating myself. In my very first blog post for Involve, I asked where citizens were in the debate about cleaning up Parliament after the expenses scandal. My underlying point was that the institution, and members of Parliament weren’t well placed to deal with the problem, because the key issue was one of lost trust. I think the same is true about the reform of press regulation.

It seems like the whole of the establishment is implicated in the ever growing scandal of illegal behaviour by sections of the British media. Given this it is hard to see how any institution – least of all Parliament or the media – can claim enough authority and distance to be trusted enough to ensure this sort of mess doesn’t happen again.

While we clearly need a more robust system of press regulation, there are dangers of devising a press regulation system that restricts the ability of the press to investigate and report. The upshot of that outcome will be more abuses of power somewhere else in the system.

The objection will be of course that: “this is all too difficult for the public to do”; “they won’t understand media law”; “they don’t understand how Parliament works”; “they will only give the mob’s reaction and we’ll end up with an even more restrictive system than you’ve just warned us about.”

Attempt to engage the public in a rushed way and without giving enough thought about what you are asking them to debate on and these prophecies will come true. However, long experience shows that if you spend time listening to what citizens are already saying by taking time to go to the spaces that matter most to them, then you will already have got out of your institutional bubble. In cases as important as press regulation, what government then needs to do is to take time and money thinking about how to use this, and explicitly involve citizens in developing a new system of regulation. If we do this, we will get a system that experts alone couldn’t have devised and one that actually meets the needs of the people this country.

The issue of the reform of press regulation is too important to leave to Parliament or a Royal Commission – one of the foundations of our democracy is at stake. It would be criminal to leave citizens out of the decisions that are about to be taken.

Image credit: Mwezibou

I’ve already blogged a number of times on ways to involve citizens that gets the most out of them without downgrading the critical role of experts. See here and here for example.