by Brian Cathcart
Kenneth Clarke, the Cabinet minister without portfolio, has written to the Leveson Inquiry to say that the press needs a new, more powerful regulator that is independent of both the industry and politicians.
Written last July and now available on the inquiry’s website, Clarke’s letter also said that if the new regulator required backing or underpinning by statute ‘it would not be the freedom of expression Armageddon some commentators would have you believe’.
While he neither advocated nor rejected such statutory backing, he mocked the idea that any legislation binding the press would inevitably mean state control of what is published: ‘. . . press organisations have a legal obligation to register with Companies House and HM Revenue and Customs as businesses; this doesn’t appear to me to amount to political interference in their work.’
Sent while Clarke was still Secretary of State for Justice, the letter makes clear that these are his own views and not those of the government. (Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg made clear to Hacked Off during their recent party conferences that they awaited the Leveson report with open minds, and that they hoped it could be dealt with through an all-party approach.)
Clarke wrote to Lord Justice Leveson: ‘The first point to make is that I believe we do need a new regulator – one with substantially more power and independence than the PCC, which failed in its previous incarnation and no longer commands the confidence of the public. I also share what appears to be the consensus view that a new body should be independent both of the industry and of political influence.’
Clark said he was attracted by the idea of a contract-based arrangement, as proposed by Lords Hunt and Black on behalf of the editors and proprietors, but went on to point to a series of weaknesses in the Hunt-Black plan, notably in the enforcement of rulings against papers.
‘Lord Hunt mentions the Irish model, allowing the court to take into account whether a member of the body has complied with its standards of behaviour in defamation (and perhaps privacy) cases. This could, however, create complications . . .’ Among these complications would be the creation of what Clarke called ‘an unlevel playing field’ in which not all defendants in defamation cases would be treated equally – a problem for the courts and for justice.
Clarke summarised the powers of the PCC and declared: ‘I believe that these are broadly the right kinds of powers, but the successor body to the PCC should be able to impose them as remedies, rather than negotiate them. In addition, fines should be available for serious or systemic breaches of the Editors’ Code.’ He added: ‘I would also go further than Lord Hunt in saying that the prominence and content of apologies should sometimes be set unilaterally by the regulator, generally pursuing the principle that it should attract ’similar prominence’ as the offending article.’
Finally, Clarke offered his views on the definition of public interest, broadly endorsing the definition given in the existing PCC editors’ code. But he expressed doubts about whether it was ever in the public interest to investigate the private lives of celebrities and sportspeople who have made no special claim to virtue.
‘The matter of exposing and highlighting misdemeanours carried out by those in public life, or with public influence, is clearly in the public interest. That extends to exposing hypocrisy, and, somewhat reluctantly, I admit that this could sometimes cover sportsmen and women and celebrities if they affect to publicise the supposed virtues of their private life. But towards the end of that scale, it clearly becomes irresponsible to justify the breaches of privacy and cases of harassment of celebrities who have made no public pretence of particular virtues that your Inquiry has heard about as being somehow in the public interest.’
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.