Press regulation: it ain’t over until the press barons sign up to it

March 18, 2013

Rupert MurdochOh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! they chortled in their joy! The political class seems intoxicated with having finally, excruciatingly, achieved cross-party consensus on regulating the press.

Everyone, it appears, is a winner. Dave has gambled – with losing a vote in the House of Commons, and implicit in it a momentous amount of face – and won a few, paltry concessions on statutory regulation that can only be appreciated in their full complexity by a nit-picking lawyer. Ed, jubilant, with parliamentary plaudits ringing in his ears, has got what he always claimed he wanted: a Royal Charter backed by statutory regulation. And Nick’s just happy to be on the winning side (whichever that is, exactly).

But, resonant of the Cypriot banking crisis rumbling in the background, parliamentary accord in principle may be only the first, relatively easy, step in what promises to be an agonisingly long process.

Amid universal self-congratulation within the first three estates, what has been forgotten is the most important issue of all: the assent of the fourth. An eerie silence has settled over the land as the press barons – the mighty Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – weigh up their options.

This is not the endgame they had in mind at all. The merest hint of statutory sacrament is abhorrent. And their objections to it are by no means groundless. Being men of the world, none expected to get away with a light slap on the wrist this time round (in other words, the moribund Press Complaints Commission being given a new set of falsies). What they have been served up, however, is enough to cause apoplexy.

Granted, the new press council will be self-regulatory in a manner of speaking: for instance, editors will still play a principal role in drawing up their own code of conduct. But the fact that this code is to be enshrined in law (however statute-lite) means – horror of horrors – the Street of Shame will for the very first time have to abide by it.

And there is worse. Newspapers are being expected to pay for this new regulatory body with their own hard-earned (and declining) advertising and circulation revenues. Yet they will be able to exercise no veto over those sitting in judgement upon them.

Now what is the point of self-regulation if you can’t game the system?

All sorts of humiliations beckon. For a start, there will be front-page retractions of a size and proportion equivalent to the original trumped-up story; in other words, no more “See page 94, bottom para, far right”. And then, if the press recuses? “Arbitrary” fines whose eye-watering size might actually get noticed by shareholders, and hit the owners where it really hurts – in the bank account.

Luckily, there are a few time-honoured principles that can be trundled out to muddy the waters, promote dissension and avert the awful day of reckoning. A very good one is our old friend Juvenal’s Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? – which might be loosely translated as: who will watch over the watchdog itself? A question that near two thousand years of repeated interrogation has failed to satisfactorily answer.

Juvenal’s oblique point, as far as I can make out, was that the powerful invariably stuff organs of governance with officials who are like-minded, obligated, compromised or compliant – leading to all manner of corruption and tyranny. A fine contemporary example would be the PCC, the illustrious members of whose committee quite recently included Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People – who is now helping police with their inquiries into phone-hacking.

However much fog surrounds the future workings of the new press regulatory body, one thing is beacon-clear: the regulator will no longer be guided by the wisdom of serving newspaper editors with an axe to grind. But if not editors, then who? That is the question. Friends of politicians? The Good and the Wise from the upper house? Well-meaning but naive members of the judiciary, like Brian Hutton who was walked all over by the Blair government? Former senior civil servants who, like most lawyers, are instinctively inimicable to the whole concept of “unauthorised” leaks of information into the public domain? The publicly-wronged but narrowly-focused, like the McCanns, Dowlers, John Prescott and, er, Hugh Grant?

Who, in short, can – hand on heart – present themselves as an uncompromised and objective judge in the court of press ethics?

Without the compliance of the three aforementioned proprietors, whose newspapers account for the vast majority of national readership, these new Leveson-spawned regulations are going to go nowhere. Should they choose to prevaricate, Murdoch & Co will have ample opportunity to rail against disguised censorship. Real, or imagined.


How long before Leveson is kicked into the long grass?

November 29, 2012

LOL – now he knows what it means – must have been David Cameron’s reaction after reading Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press. First came an audible sigh of relief over the vindication of his own reputation, which– despite inappropriate platonic text dalliance with La Brooks, now awaiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure on several criminal charges; oh, and former prime ministerial comms director Andy Coulson, let’s not forget him – received not a brickbat; then a guffaw over the exoneration of his health and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, once he realised Leveson had whitewashed his role in the BSkyB/Murdoch saga at the expense of Hunt’s mendacious adviser, Adam Smith.

But the biggest laugh of all was surely reserved for Leveson’s keystone proposal: a statutory “underpinning” to press regulation. Over Cameron’s dead body. The introduction of any such measure, however camouflaged, would be tantamount to the Tory leader committing political suicide.

This “underpinning” business is the crux of the report, and the reason why it  – like the 7 inquests into the power of the press over the last 70 years preceding it – will be kicked into the long grass as soon as dignity allows.

Let’s be quite clear. Neither Leveson nor any of the 300 or so witnesses called before the inquiry demanded explicit intervention by the state or politicians in the conduct of British newspapers. The debate is a lot more nuanced than that and concerns not whether – that is a given on all sides – but how the current, flaccid, self-regulatory apparatus – known as the Press Complaints Commission – should be given independent coercive force.

The newspaper proprietors and editors want PCC-Plus – no surprise there. While there are shades of difference between the Hunt/Black proposals (both these peers are prominent members of the PCC) and the axis represented by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent, the press is united on one vital prerequisite to reform. Under no circumstances should there be any statutory element – direct or indirect – in the new, toughened regulatory framework, whatever final form it takes.

And that’s just where Leveson disagrees with them. His point is that no form of self-regulation can be credibly independent when newspaper proprietors – whatever their pious assertions about newspaper ethics in public – continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. PCC-Plus might enable them to do this in a number of ways. Though serving editors would now be excluded from any committee of the Good and the Wise, proprietors could exercise covert influence over the selection of those sitting in regulatory judgement over them through financial manipulation. One of the prime principles of self-regulation is, after all, the inalienable right of the industry being regulated to pay for its own regulation. Lack of financial love might well be shown towards any candidate considered even mildly resistant to the idea of uncurbed press freedom, in the form of a threatened funding boycott.

And that’s just for starters. What about speedy redress of wrongs? What of punishment that actually fits the crime – as opposed to a self-administered slap on the wrist, or impractically long and expensive court cases which are beyond the means of most would-be litigants?

For these and other reasons, Leveson seems to believe that only the veiled threat of statutory intervention will give the regulator the independence, public respect and muscle that is so clearly required. Most members of the public, according to recent YouGov opinion poll, agree with him. The trouble is, most of Cameron’s party – the party in power – do not. They know that the backing of newspaper proprietors can be vital to a successful election result; and, once in power, it is very difficult to succeed in the face of an unremittingly hostile press. They also know that whatever any future statute book might say, newspapers are a law unto themselves. And, when it comes down to it, they will portray legislative curbs on their activities as incipient tyranny – and brush it aside accordingly. One thing that hasn’t changed in over 70 years is the truth of then prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s observation that newspaper proprietors enjoy “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” He was referring to Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, whose newspapers had just forced him from office. There’s still a Viscount Rothermere, but nowadays the Beaverbrook clan has been displaced by the Murdoch mafia.

So, statutory “underpinning” – forget it. As for Ofcom being allowed to do the underpinning, don’t make me laugh out loud. Ofcom is out of the frying pan into the fire, in regulatory terms. We can be certain the appointment of its executives will be untouched by the influence of press barons for one very good reason: they are picked by a minister of the crown (currently culture secretary Maria Miller). That aside, what conceivable qualification do a group of career bureaucrats have in passing judgement on press freedom?


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