Be careful what you wish for
As Politicians trip over themselves in seeking the plaudits for the done deal to regulate the Press , not everyone is impressed. It transpires that the basic deal ie a Royal Charter and yes with a bit of statutory backing ( a legislative clause inserted in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill manages to avoid any reference to the press, or its regulator to be established through a Royal Charter. As the FT points out -‘ this is either artful or downright disingenuous’) was negotiated in Ed Milibands office, with Nick Clegg present and the pro Leveson ‘ Hacked Off ‘ group too but no Press. The Tories were represented by Oliver Letwin the Cabinet Office minister who appears to have been out gunned.
Hacked off is a motley group of individuals who are essentially self-appointed, have opaque governance structures and who wont come clean about who funds them . For a pressure group to have such privileged access and leverage in the final discussions over such a controversial issue, and piece of legislation, is unprecedented, and indeed sets a worrying precedent . This is no way to manage such an important issue.Unsurprisingly, it has infuriated the Press who were excluded from this meeting ,even those who broadly accepted the approach of Miliband and Clegg. So far most of the Press has not backed the proposals and there are complaints about insufficient time to review the proposals. The FT, the Guardian and Independent, are less hostile to the proposals than other newspapers, but still have significant concerns , while accepting that self-regulations’ time is up. Indeed there are some recent signs that the FTs editor is having second thoughts as the dust has cleared . The Spectator, Economist, Private Eye, News International , the Daily Mail and Daily Express are openly hostile. The Foreign Press are having a field day in pointing out that our politicians are limiting press freedom. Significantly, and worryingly , some claim this could be the beginning of state censorship of the blogosphere ,and micro-blogosphere too.
The Index of Censorship says that “In spite of David Cameron’s claims, there can be no doubt that what has been established is statutory underpinning the press regulator. This introduces a layer of political control that is extremely undesirable. On this sad day, Britain has abandoned a democratic principle. But beyond that, the Royal Charter’s loose definition of a ‘relevant publisher’ as a ‘website containing news-related material’ means blogs could be regulated under this new law as well. This will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on everyday people’s web use.
“Bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages in court, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place. This mess of legislation has been thrown together with alarming haste: there’s little doubt we’ll repent for a while to come.”
Index on Censorship Chair Jonathan Dimbleby has issued the following statement on behalf of Index’s trustees:
“As Chair of Index on Censorship, I have to report that the Index board of trustees – who all occupy senior positions in roles both within and outside of the media — is dismayed at the course of developments that have been taken in establishing a new press regulator. The board has the gravest anxiety at the residual political powers the now expected outcome and system will give to politicians. The two-thirds block (ie parliamentary vote) on any changes to the royal charter could be abused in the future — not least when today’s emerging consensus shows that the parties can come together in both houses to agree on press regulation.”
There is little doubt that self-regulation was not working. But there are potential dangers and pitfalls in the current approach and how it will impact on freedom of speech and investigative journalism (in particular holding those in power to account) and indeed concerns about the process that has got us to this point. Coming to hasty agreements with a Pressure group at 0200 in the morning on matters of such fundamental importance to our freedoms could not be described as good practice or good governance for that matter . The word ‘ shambolic ‘springs easily to mind along with the expression ‘pigs ear’. The stipulation that a two thirds majority from both Houses will be required for future changes in the Royal Charter introduces political involvement for the first time , and for all time, into press regulation in the UK.It is pretty clear that our politicians, who have suffered at the hands of the Press, (often well deserved, as it happens) are focusing too on those who blog and tweet. In this feeding frenzy it is sometimes easy to forget that the phone hacking scandal and MPs cavalier approach to taxpayers money , in the form of the expenses scandal, was exposed by a vigilant press. It is equally true that existing laws , if properly applied and enforced can hold journalists, who break the law, to account,although it is also the case that the police have been remarkably lax about using them to good effect.
Remember Northcliffe’s maxim that “news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising”. More often than not it is those in power who have something to hide who seek to supress ‘the news’. This deal will give succour to them.
This ‘ remedy’ and the process that delivered it is surely almost as bad as the criminality irresponsibility and arrogance it is designed to address.