Moment of truth draws near for the British press
“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.