Do you hear the klaxons sound, warning of the sky falling in? No? Because, if you believe the press right now, one of our greatest liberties, the freedom of the press, has been frittered away by a cosy late-night deal between Hacked Off and senior politicians from all main parties, and approved by a vengeful Parliament. Surely it would be disingenuous to ask, at this stage, how many policies affecting the general public were done in cosy deals between governments and press editors.
But equally, do you hear massive sounds of rejoicing from the victims? No? Because the press is, as so often, resorting to hyperbole to make its point, referring to “million pound fines” and such like. Instead, I venture to suggest, you actually hear a hesitant and slightly disbelieving sigh of relief.
The latest news as I write this is that the editors of most of the national press are discussing whether to comply with this voluntary self-regulatory structure. That’s right. The people who have repeatedly and knowingly breached peoples’ privacy and besmirched reputations still get a chance to opt out. That’s the principle of self-regulation.
But, I hear you say, isn’t the press going on about state regulation? It’s one of these nuances. Assuming I’m reading it right, the Royal Charter isn’t setting up a regulator, it’s setting up a body to monitor the regulator. If the regulator, or regulators, aren’t up to scratch then the monitor can take some kind of corrective action – which seems to be dissolving the regulator.
That’s why we had a judicial inquiry. It’s a really knotty problem. Do you allow the press to continue to mark their own homework when, in reality they didn’t tend to mark that much and overgraded themselves, or do you impose a body to do it for them? If you impose a body, then what standards should it use? What Leveson appeared to recommend is a structure whereby the press defines its own standards but someone else holds them to those same standards. External scrutiny. Linguistically you can probably twist Leveson’s recommendation into state regulation, but even if you take that route, it’s weaker state regulation than you have for judges, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, … The press are deliberately and repeatedly blurring the boundaries. They’re clever with words, you see, writers and editors.
I am, though, still uneasy about the route this particular debate has taken in the last few days. While Hacked Off now state they are happy with the Royal Charter approach, a concession somewhat grudgingly given I imagine, it strikes me that primary legislation through Parliament would be a far better route to create something like this. It enables debate to thrash details out and come to a consensus in public view.
Instead, what we have is a legal document with some very arcane language which has been assembled quite quickly, yet cannot be amended once it comes into action without a large majority in both Houses of Parliament. (I’ll ignore the fact that the Bill that imposes this restriction can be amended by subsequent Parliaments.) Therefore, if such an instrument is to be used, we’d better be careful that it’s put together correctly.
Today’s debates have also centred around whether blogs (such as this one) and on-line news sources would fall under the aegis of the new legislation. Which actually takes us to the equally knotty question of “what is the press”? I note that Leveson decided not to answer this one. The Charter has its own definition and, because it does seem to cover some internet publications but not others, this will require a level of clarification.
I think the Government has given a hostage to fortune with this Royal Charter approach, irrespective of how much the Prime Minister wanted to avoid a precedent of legislation with a press focus. (Let’s just ignore the various acts around libel, stamp duties, censorship and so on.) Bear in mind, as previously stated, no Parliament can bind its successors.
There are some key questions also:
- What happens if the press sign up to a regulator that opts out of the monitoring body? Can a regulator actually do that?
- What happens if the new regulator remains ineffective?
- What’s to stop the press creating a series of ineffective regulators?
- How do you stop a paper from leaving the regulator just before the regulator is due to issue a crushing verdict?
I don’t believe the press’s bleating. Speaking from the survivors’ side, the press was out of control and uncorrected for too long. Not all of their errors were legal failures, and the barriers to accessing the law are too costly for most. We needed a stronger regulator. What we may now get is a body which should ensure that we do get a stronger regulator, wherever it emerges from, with operating parameters that are somewhat vague, but which not many papers actually sign up to. That would be an equal failure by the press, and it’s not at all clear what the redress would actually be.
Actually, what the victims really want is a responsible press, one that stops hounding innocent people and thrusting them into the public eye so the corporations can continue to make a profit. Peter Kellner wrote yesterday that the general public want a responsible press, and they don’t really mind how they get it. The victims are part of that general public.
The press objecting to regulation is really the press still wanting to get away with bad practice, rather than trying to reform so that bad practice cannot continue. They really still do not get it.