Moment of truth draws near for the British press

Thu, Nov 29, 2012, 00:00

For some, today’s findings from Leveson Inquiry are the final chance to regulate a “feral” British press. For others, they pose the greatest threat to press freedom in 300 years.

Tempers are running high as the deadline for release nears, with all sides attempting to pressure British prime minister David Cameron to their side of the argument.

Following its release, Mr Cameron, who received the report yesterday morning, will take to the despatch box of the House of Commons to say what he will do next.

The key issue is statutory regulation; though, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass, the two words mean whatever the speaker intends them to mean.

For much, but far from all of the press, it means a return to state licensing of journalists – something which lapsed in 1695, but, also it threatens state control – implicitly, or explicitly – over what is said.

Undoubtedly, some on the other side of the argument do want control, not just regulation of the press, though control by an often left-leaning influence, not by the state, as such.

Most, however, do not. Instead, they insist a new system must be backed up by law: a new regulator must be able to require membership, investigate at will, and fine, if necessary.

Still unsure of Mr Cameron’s plans, Lord David Hunt and Lord Guy Black proposed a new body which would agree civil law contracts lasting for five years with publishers.

Backed by such legally enforceable contracts, which would not require a new law, the regulator could punish by fines that could run to £1 million, depending on the size of the media organisation.

Some of the membership of the new regulator’s board would be independent of the press, but critics argue that the trust that would stand at its back – and decide on funding – would not be.

Proposals

Lord Hunt, the current head of the Press Complaints Commission, and Lord Black, of the Daily Telegraph, both outlined their proposal to the inquiry.

Initially, the peers proposed that journalists covered by the new regulator would enjoy a new “super” press card, guaranteeing them access to parliament, government, even football matches. Some journalists would envy such access, but it is clear from an interview this week by Lord Black that that idea is being pushed into the background.

State regulation is not necessary, nor desirable, they say. Phone hacking was always illegal, so past offences should have been investigated by police.

However, they were not, with the Metropolitan Police particularly unwilling to make enemies in print.

The investigatory arm of the Hunt/Black body is feeble, with just a tiny budget, argues Prof Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off, one of the most voluble critics of Press conduct.

Like every other proposal to regulate the press, it is, he says, “designed to appear significant and powerful” while in fact being nothing of the kind.

Hunt and Black are supported by the Free Speech Network, made up of national and regional newspapers and editors who say the plan is “fully costed, fully workable and legally robust”.

“Those that seek state regulation of the press continue on their march to endanger a free press and free speech,” said the Network, in one of the many incendiary remarks made recently. There have been many. Faced with the impending arrival of Leveson, the Daily Mail launched a full-on assault upon David Bell, one of Leveson’s advisers over his involvement in Common Purpose.

The organisation runs leadership development courses, but to critics – notably Mail editor Paul Dacre, it is a left-wing free masonry, intent on spreading its web of influence through British society.

Eighty MPs, many of them Conservatives, lined up yesterday against state regulation, saying that “no form” of it would be “possible without state licensing”.

“Licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution,” they said, refusing even to consider backing a statutory basis to underpin independent regulation, as has happened in Ireland.

The viciousness of the advance debate will be nothing in comparison to what lies ahead, leaving Mr Cameron, who instinctively does not favour state regulation, in a no-win situation.

Months ago, he said, he would accept Lord Leveson’s recommendations as long as they were not “bonkers”. However, as Humpty Dumpty could tell him, that word, too, means different things to different people.

Focus on ‘toothless’ press watchdog

In the eyes of its critics, and they are many, the UK’s existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is a toothless body, with few powers, funded by a press it should regulate but which then largely ignores its entreaties.

The commission’s “greatest sanction”, in its own words, is to issue “a critical adjudication against a newspaper or magazine” – one, it says, that acts as “a very strong deterrent”.

Judgments and apologies must be printed by the offender in a manner agreed with the PCC, which has 10 “lay” members on its 17-strong commission. The rest are serving editors.

In 1990, QC David Calcutt was appointed to investigate press standards after a flurry of tabloid coverage led to the charges that the press was “drinking in the last-chance saloon”.

Examining the PCC, which by then had replaced the prior Press Council, Calcutt said it should be given 18 months to prove its worth, but replaced with a statutory one if behaviour did not improve.

He held out little hope of improvement, saying that he did not believe the press then was “willing to make, or that it would make” the changes he believed were necessary to the PCC’s rules.

Instead, he said a body backed by law should have powers to investigate on its own initiative, to restrain publication of material in breach of a code of ethics and, crucially, the power to impose fines.

His obituary in the Daily Telegraph in 1994 recorded what happened next, where it notes that newspapers made much of the fact that he had married late, sired no children and liked church music. Few of his recommendations saw the light of day. MARK HENNESSY

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