Moment of truth draws near for the British press
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.
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”.